If we’re all in agreement about empathy in B2B marketing, then how come buyers aren’t falling over themselves to act on our messages?

We’ve all gotten the memo. (We’ve even sent some of them ourselves.) “In B2B, buyers are people, not companies.” “There’s no such thing as business to business, it’s all human to human.” “B2B is now P2P.” 

But according to Forrester Research, and no doubt countless customers, buyers still feel that B2B marketing lacks empathy for buyers’ motivations.

That’s the bad news: as B2B marketers, we’re not doing a great job at putting ourselves in our buyers’ shoes.

empathy in b2b marketing - put yourself in the buyers' shoes
We’re not doing a great job at putting ourselves in the buyers’ shoes.

The good news is that empathy isn’t a genetic trait, something either you have or you don’t. Empathy in B2B marketing is something you can learn. It’s something you can practice in your everyday customer conversations. (Heck, it’s something you can learn just from the act of practicing everyday customer conversations.)

But what’s not useful is a bunch of other marketers admonishing you into empathy. So if you’re self-aware enough to know you’re far from reaching peak empathy, how can you get better at it?

B2B marketers straddle two worlds

As a B2B communicator, I believe sincerely that our clients and customers have painful challenges that our products and solutions can help solve.

And as a product marketer, I possess a healthy dose of analytic, left-brain dominance. This means I’m probably in very good company in this technology marketing universe.

After all, more than anyone else in an enterprise, product marketers need to balance the cold hard facts of the engineering, product management, and finance departments—and the frank realities of market factors—with the wants, needs, pains and habits of our individual buyer personas. Or else our go-to-market efforts, our content, and our sales conversations will fail.

If you start out on your customer journey as someone with an empty empathy tank, and want to pick up more and more of it as you travel further along, here are some basic refueling techniques to put you in a B2B empathy frame of mind.

Tools to learn empathy in B2B marketing

Without exception, the best way to learn empathy with your B2B audience is to have regular conversations with them. Just like learning a foreign language, if you immerse yourself in their day-to-day, you can’t help but absorb their experiences yourself. 

Listen very, very, very hard

  • Tune everything else out, including your own brain.
  • Think of those movie scenes where someone sits in front of a gigantic 2-way radio and spends minutes fine-tuning the dial to the precise frequency so no other noise comes across: A Quiet Place comes to mind. Listening was so important that the family’s life depended on it.
  • Of course, in everyday, non-threatening customer conversations, listening that closely still gives you a direct line to lots of signals like level of interest, hesitancy, unspoken and between-the-lines messages, maybe internal politics, etc.

Eliminate visual distractions

  • When you’re on a call with clients, squeeze your eyes shut (of course, this doesn’t work as well in person) and envision them going through the issue or dealing with the responsibility.
  • In your mind, watch the movie of the pain or problem they describe.
  • More than talking about it, visualizing it helps cement it in your mind for later when you need to harness details to get buy-in from others or draw up a proposed solution.

Capture “feeling” words

  • Write down with pen and paper the highly charged language they use. 
  • The physical act of writing triggers your brain to pay closer attention to the speaker, and stimulates recall later.

Use thought- and feeling-provoking words in your questioning

  • The wording of the questions you ask can draw out that kind of language from them.
  • That’s because it eases them into the frame of mind to articulate their answers in matching vivid detail.
  • For instance, use provocative words like ‘consequences,’ ‘suffering,’ ‘pointless,’ ‘fix,’ ‘imagine,’ etc. as opposed to cold business words like ‘inefficiency,’ ‘address,’ ‘improve,’ etc. My favorite? ‘Last straw.’

Sharp objects to avoid

Here’s where my views of empathy diverge from many other professionals: I recommend against applying the checklist of typical “active listening” behaviors. Only recently, I found out I was not alone in this aversion.

“Can you just stop ‘active listening’?”

Don’t be guilty of these bad “active listening” habits

  • Gently saying “uh huh” or “I see” to encourage your customer to keep talking
  • Mirroring the speaker’s words or repeating what they say, to prove to them you were listening
  • Overemphasizing the very empathy you’re trying to cultivate
“That’s… exactly what I just said.”

If you’re not a natural at it, and even if you are, active listening tactics can come across as forced, insincere, self-absorbed and interruptive.

In the B2B customer interviews I’ve conducted for companies—as an employee and as a consultant; for win-loss analysis and for buyer persona interviews; for content, case studies and for message validation—as far as the buyer is concerned, the best technique is to shut up and pay attention.

This makes buyers feel so listened to—almost as though nobody has ever done that before—that they just keep sharing.

And you just keep learning.

“Okay, this isn’t gonna work.”