Why Understanding Pain Is the Key to Customer-Centric Marketing

When you’re upset, those closest to you can see it in your eyes, your posture, perhaps even your appearance. They’ll ask those two magic words—“What’s wrong?”—and then you’ll launch into a play-by-play dialogue of work drama about how Doug was rude to you, where Divya was sitting in relation to you at the conference table, and why you’re never going back to that office again (until tomorrow).

These are fundamentally human qualities: We like to be heard. We want to be understood. We seek a release from our pain.

There’s a lesson here for marketers. For a brand to truly provide a helpful solution, customers must have a pain point for you to address. With that pain point comes actual pain—whether frustration, anxiety, stress, confusion, embarrassment, or any other negative emotions.

Your goal, as a customer-obsessed marketer, should be not only to fix the pain point but to provide an antidote for the pain itself. As Spotify CMO Seth Farbman says in Josh Steimle’s excellent book Chief Marketing Officers at Work, “What we’re seeing when you release people from even small bits of anxiety or potential for regret or remorse is this explosion of this sense of freedom, and that freedom leads to a sense of empowerment, joy, and curiosity.”

In my last column, I made the case that the three stages of being an empathic marketer are not so different from those of being an empathic friend: Ask what’s wrong, show that you understand, and then suggest solutions.

In this column, I’m going to go explore how to use those questions in a way that helps both you and your customers. We often fail to even ask “What’s wrong?” because we think we know the answer already, which can get in the way of empathy. But luckily, as Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Dr. Helen Riess has found, empathy can be a learned behavior, and some of the following steps may help you train your brain to communicate better.

Go one-on-one

If you’re reading articles like this, you’ve probably done some research to better understand your customer. Maybe you reviewed existing buyer personas and journey maps, or created your own from scratch. Good on you in either case; these are foundational parts of your strategy.

But I also believe that these aggregations of human behavior can take away from our empathy. In one study, psychology researchers at Israel’s Ben Gurion University gave participants photos of eight children, only with names and ages, and asked how much money they’d give to save these kids’ lives. Participants were then shown just one child, told that kid’s unique personal story, and asked the same questions. On average, people gave twice as much to the individual child as they did to the eight kids grouped together.

Maybe marketers would benefit by paying more attention to the individual challenges of customers in order to trigger our emotions. As those psychologists discovered, an “identified victim”—their words for the one child—gives us more cause to open our hearts and our wallets.

Given the Ben Gurion study, you might want to systematize one-on-one interviews of prospects and customers. You could hire a journalist (hey, I know plenty!) to record an interview and ask below-the-surface questions about their buying process. Play it back for all the key people on your team to hear. That way you keep everybody focused on the customer’s need.

Put emotion on your map

At Monster, we’ve recently created new customer journey maps on both the B2B and B2C sides of the house.

On one side, the agency we worked with cleverly used emojis to identify the feelings customers felt at each stage. On the other, Caleb Brown, a journey mapping consultant who is also a professional cartoonist and a terrific moderator, helped us define the journey in terms of what he called “emotional valence.” He drew out a kind of musical staff and asked us to come up with words ranging from the most positive emotion our consumer might experience to the most negative. This exercise forced us to view the buyer’s experience through a lens of empathy.

Is emotion a part of your customer journey maps? If not, consider adding it. Take special care in defining the emotion, though: Instead of just writing sad, think about whether the customer is distressed or dejected or disappointed. Be specific. Go back to customer interviews to find the words people used.

Once you’ve named the pain, also map the opposite emotion (e.g. from “embarrassed” to “confident”) since that should be your north star.

So, if you’re that company Thinx that was barraging the NYC subway with advertising for period-proof underwear, your customer is embarrassed about leaks, and you know you want them to feel secure to do everyday activities (like whatever this woman is doing in the image above). Regardless of how you feel about the product, the messaging is not only memorable but emotionally on point as well.

Seek out complaints

Humans suffer from the unfortunate condition known as confirmation bias, when we seek out information that supports existing beliefs. Meanwhile, we also avoid information that challenges those beliefs, since as Jay Baer notes in an article on Adweek, our “bodies produce more cortisol [a.k.a. the stress hormone] anytime we encounter fear, rejection, or criticism.”

According to a 2017 survey by Clutch, only 10 percent of companies say “understanding customer sentiment” is a primary objective of their social listening strategies, yet this is a very useful way to get actionable insights. Instead of getting caught in an echo chamber of our biased perceptions, we have to force ourselves to have regular exposure to negative feedback.

You can learn a lot about your customers based on what they say to their friends over social media.

One low-cost way to do this: Send your social media team on a mission to gather complaints related to your products and major keywords. Focus groups are great and all, but participants may be eager to make moderators happy. The internet frees people of social convention, for better or worse. (See: Godwin’s Law.) You can learn a lot about your customers based on what they say to their friends over social media.

Poll throughout the process

If you want to know how someone feels, there’s no better way than to ask. Whenever we greet friends, the first thing we do is ask how they’re doing. But when it comes to our customers, we typically only ask how they feel at two points in the buying cycle:

  1. In our initial research stage, when the question is conditional (e.g. “Would you buy this product?)
  2. Following a purchase, with the question framed in past tense (e.g. “How was this experience?”)

But a buyer’s journey is not just two points. (It’s called a journey for a reason.) So another way to listen to your customers is by soliciting feedback during the middle of the process.

Setting up a one-question survey on the product page is an easy way to address this. It could reveal buyer motivations, challenges, and other insights. For example, you could ask: “Help us serve you better: Did you understand the benefits of X after reading this page?” You could also pair the poll with a discount for the next purchase.

If you’re worried that the survey would disrupt the flow of purchase, take a look at a study conducted by marketing professors Utpal Dholakia of Rice and Vicki Morowitz of NYU Stern. Using a pool 2,000 customers from a financial services company, the researchers gave half of the participants a brief customer satisfaction poll. The other half acted as the control group. A year later, the researchers reported that “the customers we surveyed were more than three times as likely to have opened new accounts, were less than half as likely to have defected, and were more profitable than the customers who hadn’t been surveyed.”

Steer into the pain

In some fields, empathic listening is a required skill. Props to reader Jessica Schimm for pointing me to a beautiful piece on Medium by a woman named Lily Benson, who recounts her experiences volunteering for a suicide prevention hotline—work that requires an immense amount of emotional generosity.

What I especially loved about this piece was her explanation of something she learned in training called “steering into the pain”:

I already knew, though didn’t (and don’t) always faithfully practice, the basics of how to listen well: being present, validating, asking questions, and sometimes the hardest part, not trying to fix things. Steering into the pain goes a step farther — when someone is telling you about something that hurts, not only do you stay there with them, and not minimize it or change the subject or talk around it or try to compare it to something or find a way to make it better, you stay there with them, and you go in deeper. You ask questions. Like: what’s the hardest part? What do you miss about him?

She goes on to talk about how this conversation becomes a release. People no longer felt alone with their suffering. As Benson writes, “Pain is this isolating thing, something that feels like it separates you. But it’s also one of the things that you share with every other human on earth. It can be an opening for intimacy, and for connecting with the shared humanity of the people around you.”

While I want to point out there’s a clear distinction between something as serious as saving a life and something as trivial as selling a product, I do think Benson is offering a universal lesson here about empathy and listening. You want to make people feel like they aren’t alone, and drive your inquiry directly (but gently) into their pain. I’d bet that Jeffrey Slater, Chief Listening Officer at The Marketing Sage, would agree with this idea—he has written that a core attribute of the empathic marketer is to “ask penetrating and respectful questions that dig deeply into the psyche of their audience.”

You want to make people feel like they aren’t alone.

Scientific research supports Benson and Slater. The leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman studied 3,492 people in a management training program, pulling out the top 5 percent of people perceived to be the most effective listeners to find out what they were doing differently. These top listeners weren’t just nodding along silently; they were asking questions that “promote discovery and insight.”

If you have a sales process with a lot of touchpoints, look for opportunities to guide your customers deeper into self-inquiry. I bet you’ll find they want to talk and will welcome the empathetic ear. If they don’t, they might not have enough pain to require a solution—and you may want to think about getting a different job. (Ahem, Monster.)

Here’s the best news: Even if you don’t have the bandwidth to implement these takeaways at the moment, simply reading this piece may have made you more empathetic. According to a study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, just believing that empathy is a learnable skill often leads to more positive feelings for those who hold conflicting views from us, people who are suffering, and people who are different.

Margaret Magnarelli is the senior director of marketing and managing editor for content at Monster. This is the second column in her series on empathic marketing. You can read the first one here. Part three will be published on The Content Strategist next Friday.

Image by iStockphoto

Get better at your job right now.

Read our weekly newsletter to master content marketing. It’s made for marketers, creators, and everyone in between.

Trending stories