Empathy in Marketing – why your team needs it

If you’ve seen me talk about the PHACE talent framework or read my overview post, you know that empathy in marketing is one of the key characteristics I focus on. It’s also something that has emerged in job descriptions as smart hiring managers realize the power of having empathetic employees. The challenging part about empathy, like a lot of soft skills, is the difficulty in quantifying and evaluating it during the interview process. It’s also challenging to develop this within individuals in the work setting. In this post I’m going to dive in a bit and give my personal view of empathy in Marketing, how you can find the right folks, and develop it in employees that may not demonstrate it.

Webster’s simple definition of empathy is “the feeling that you understand and share another person’s experiences and emotions; the ability to share someone else’s feelings.” That’s a fine definition but I like an even simpler one:

EMPATHETIC: putting yourself in others’ shoes


Why Empathy in Marketing is so Valuable

I strongly believe every modern marketer has to get closer to the business side of things to be successful – at a minimum they have to know how their work drives Sales, and strive to make as big an impact as possible in revenue. But as Marketers we’re also working with Product, and are probably working with some combination of Legal, Finance, and IT folks as well. But far too often I see Marketing teams that aren’t adding as much value as they could be to the business, because of strained working relationships they have not only with folks outside their department, but even the colleagues they sit next to and work with every day in Marketing.


When you’re evaluating candidates for Marketing positions, you can try to assess the level of empathy by asking about other jobs within your organization. For instance, “What do you think is the hardest thing about being a sales rep?” or “What do you see is your role in driving revenue?” With the former question, you’re looking to see if the candidate understands the life of a sales rep and the challenges they face, or least can picture it. In the latter case, if the candidate talks about top of funnel activities only (like leads) and doesn’t relate their work to what’s happening in Sales, they might not really understand how they need to affect the business, or may lack the right level of empathy for their colleagues in Sales.


Developing Empathy in Marketing Teams

The root-root cause of lack of empathy is the fundamental attribution error. We each see the world as affecting us, and it’s difficult to think about things from the other side. So how do we develop and encourage empathy in marketing teams? I believe a large part is embedded in who we are naturally as individuals, so you will find people who are somewhere on the range of “Super sensitive” to “Feelings are dumb”. But that doesn’t mean you can’t encourage more empathy in the folks on your team.


There are a few different options to help people put themselves in others shoes — two of my favorites are setting up formalized shadowing programs or temporary job assignments. For instance, at New Relic we instituted a formal Sales Rep Shadowing program, dubbed “Rep Life” where a member of our Customer Lifecycle team recruits a number of sales reps to serve on a roster where folks in Marketing can sign-up and sit with the reps during scheduled times, listening to customer/prospect calls and seeing how reps on the floor follow-up and respond to marketing-sourced leads. That feedback is documented and at the end of each period, the Customer Lifecycle team pulls out the common themes and figures out what Marketing can do to improve the information we provide to Sales, how we alert the reps to different activities, and how we notify them about significant campaigns or marketing activities. It also builds a level of trust and helps to reduce some of the tension between the sales and marketing floor.

Another program I’ve heard other organizations do as part of Marketing onboarding is have new marketers spend a few shifts as a customer service rep. This allows them to understand what their customers’ issues are as they use the products, and help realize where there might be opportunities for marketing to add more value. Marketing might be able to create a ‘fast start’ guide for instance to help customers find value in the product easier.
building empathy in Marketing
Shadowing sales reps is a great way to build empathy in Marketing


However you choose to encourage empathy in Marketing it is up to you – but the key thing is that the programs you develop live on and aren’t done just one time. In your regular check-ins and conversations with team members as you see tension build between different groups, realize that usually it’s a lack of empathy for the other side that can be diffused by encouraging folks to put themselves in others’ shoes. And that attitude leads to a better working relationship that’s great for everyone in the organization.