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Driving B2B Empathy in Marketing: A Q&A with Forrester’s Laura Ramos

April 5th, 2018 Michael Mayday

Empathy is a three syllable word carrying a lot of weight. Children are told to express it, parents are told to teach and well-rounded adults are expected to be it. But what about in marketing? Is there a way for businesses to express B2B empathy and mean it?

Well, yes — and that’s the question Laura Ramos, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester, is answering as she goes through her keynote presentation at Webinar World 2018. The subject is a great match for the event. After all, marketers, especially B2B marketers, depend on creating and nurturing trust. The key to unlocking trust? Empathy in marketing.

I had the good fortune to ask Laura a few questions following her presentation and empathy in marketing strategy. What follows is a brief Q&A, edited for clarity, brevity and context.

Q: So, you were talking earlier about how B2B buyers are approaching purchases like consumers, and you many singled out Caterpillar as an example of how business-to-business markers can approach that. Do You have any other examples along those lines?

LR: Oh, my goodness, let me see. Caterpillar — who else would we think about? I’m trying to remember my IoT examples. You know, it’s a lot of different areas.  One is, in particular, kind of similar to Caterpillar, is the big — and this is very B2B — jet engine companies. So, if you’re looking at what Rolls Royce, for example, [who is] is selling to Boeing and Airbus, the equipment now is so instrumented and has so much data coming off of it.  And they collect that data and help the airlines, or the fleet managers, understand exactly what’s happening with the airplanes. They’re moving in the direction of going from selling engines to selling airtime, or transportation miles or things like that, where they guarantee that the engines will be running or that they’ll be able to detect the issues with it that would require preventive maintenance or something like that.

And that’s similar to the capital or example in that, that’s kind of the same thing. They’re watching the equipment — or the data, not them — watches the equipment and says, “Hey, this looks like it’s going to be needing an oil change sooner or needs to be built sooner,” or something like that than you expected.

Q: Is there any particular reason for this shift? [Well], maybe it’s been under the surface all along, but the shift from B2B to B2B but more consumer?

LR: It’s a combination of learned and native behaviors that are really driven by our consumer experiences. If you can decide in a moment that, you know, you want to pick up your phone go on to Amazon buy something — the ability to get information, to compare products, to understand what’s going on with this company, who should I be talking to there, all of those expectations are now carrying over to the business world.

The expectation of “Well, I should be able to get that information.” In many cases, they can, and they don’t need to talk to a salesperson or even go to your website to figure that out anymore.

Q: You mentioned that customer experience is becoming a bigger part of B2B marketing picture…

LR: Huge.

Q: Huge. Are there central tenants that we can point at and say “This is what … you need to build your customer experience on?

LR: Yeah, the central tenant is the customer life-cycle. In marketing, marketing and sales, we kind of built our processes, our thinking, our campaigns, our go-to-market, around the idea of the funnel or the waterfall. The funnel and the waterfall aren’t dead, they’re just good like reference points for how you might run your internal processes.

If you’re really thinking about customers though, you’ve got to think about the life cycle, which starts when they’re discovering a problem, exploring different options, then they make their purchase decision. But then, from there, is kind of where they spend a majority of their lifetime — in using your products or services, making sure that they’re getting the maximum value out of that. You want that to happen, too. And then they engage — this is where they become loyal and advocates and start the whole process over again.

Q: Okay. What are the biggest hurdles B2B marketers should keep in mind when they’re approaching making a shift towards customer-centricity?

LR: Well, data is a big hurdle. So many of our internal systems are not connected and don’t use data properly. I mean, we’ve done studies where up to 60, 70 percent of internal data just sits — it’s not touched. So, getting a handle on that, and really connecting not only what you know about customers in marketing, but what’s in the sales systems? What’s in the service systems? What’s happening in your warranties — all of those areas that touch customers is essential. And then blending that with so much data that is available, on the outside, where do customers go? How do they “shop.” What are the signals that they’re putting out that says that they are in the market for solving a certain kind of problem? Most marketers really need some serious help getting all of that together. Because without that data, you don’t create the insight and the understanding and, ultimately, the empathy to better address the customers’ needs.

Q: Okay, you mentioned um the power of habits on stage. What sort of habits should organizations try to practice? And what sort of pitfalls in terms of adopting a more powerful like customer-centric habit should they be aware of?

LR:  Yeah, I talked on stage — and the research — talked a lot about the three habits, being human, helpful and handy. It’s surprising how much lack of humanity there is in B2B marketing and content. Last year, we did a study where we looked at 60 B2B websites and we looked at how engaging the content is. This isn’t about the experience on the website — it’s “If I’m a customer, am I going to be interested in what this company has to offer me in their web content?” And we look at websites because we can, and it’s representative of what the overall content strategy is — it’s not everything, I get that. But, in the 60 that we looked at — we rated them on 15 different criteria, and the passing score was 30 points and an excellent score was 45 — we didn’t find one that passed. In fact, we had to change the scoring — drop it down to 25 — in order to find six that passed. So, the biggest problem with that, with what we found, is just lack of human understanding of what those customers are about. Besides talk all about them — it doesn’t talk about the people or the problems that they’re trying to sell to

Q: Do you think there’s a fundamental reason why that is the case? Is there a top-down reason why there’s a lack of humanity or not communicating on a human level?

LR: I think that the lack of humanity stems from three things. One, it’s the idea that B2B buyers make rational decisions, and they don’t. And so, we need to not only talk to them about the facts, we need to talk to them about the outcomes, right? How is this going to make their lives better? It is, I think, a lot — particularly in technology — in the second point, driven by just enamourment of our products and services. You know, “We invented them. They’re our babies. They’re lovely. We want everybody to know about them.” And we lose track of the fact that people want to solve problems — they just don’t care what our technology features do. And I think the third area is just that marketers have been using a whole lot of technology recently that stands between them and the customers. They can go and do things to the website, do things to the demand generation campaigns and work at that interface level and lose track of, and not really see, the people that are behind it. You know, the people that are the real customers.

Q: Is there a way for companies to do a self-assessment — of pulling back … and say “Okay, we have an issue here. Here’s how to identify that narrow down and fix it?”

LR: Yeah, in fact, … we have several assessments in the Forrester research that looks at it at the company level — what does it take to be customer obsessed — and also at the B2B marketing level. And, what are the things to know about customer experience? When it comes to customer experience, what we found in all of our research is there’re three things that really matter. It’s not only “is the customer experience easy?” Can I do what I need to do? But is it also effective? “Can I get the right things done that I’m trying to do?”  Do I have to go around circuitous route to get where I need to go? And then the last one is emotion. Does it really stand out? Does it delight me? And I think those are the kinds of things we have — you know, as simple as that as complicated as 21 questions or whatever that you have to answer to be able to help you do those kinds of self-assessment.

Q: What books you’re reading?

LR:  What am I reading? I’ve been reading a lot of Michael Connelly right now, believe it or not. I don’t know it’s an escapism thing. I just I think he’s a fabulous writer, too.

Q: Okay, cool. Anything else you’d like to add?

LR: Hmm. Let me think. Yeah, you know. I think it’s really easy for marketers to think, “Oh, we know our customers.” And so, we really do believe there’s a big difference between being customer aware and centered and being “obsessed.” So, obsessed is you’ve got to make the commitment to put resources and strategy and budget and effort behind creating that customer relationship, that empathy. And you’ve got to do that at the expense of other things that you’ve done previously. That’s, what we think, really separates the great marketers from those who will, you know, will do okay — or maybe even struggle —in the next 5-10 years.