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29 February 2024

Most wanted business skill: Empathy

Last week, I attended the UBA Trends Day 2021. For the second consecutive year, UBA organized this annual marketing conference virtually. In addition to a very promising line-up composed of Seth Godin, Katrina Dodd and Martin Lindstrom, two innovation and customer experience evangelists (that I love to follow), Peter Hinssen and Steven Van Belleghem, were co-hosting the event.


With an audience of 1.754 participants, you can find plenty of summaries of the event online. In this post, I am compiling my personal takeaways from each of the three keynotes and made further research on some of the topics.

Building successful brands: a story worth telling

Seth Godin, the father of modern marketing, on building successful brands. It is about a story worth telling and about leaders.


Seth Godin points out that too many companies make average products for average people. With this, he means companies should know their target audience better. By wanting to please everyone, one often ends up pleasing no one. What should we do instead? Identify what Seth Godin calls a “minimum viable audience”. Dare to say no to other customer segments and start making products that matter to people who care. And it is only then that companies will be able to create strong brands and experiences worth talking about. After Seth Godin’s intervention, Peter Hinssen and Steven Van Belleghem rightfully ask how this concept applies to the commodity market. Without any hesitation, Godin answers that commodity is just a state of mind: “You can sell onions or you can sell organic red onions grown in XYZ farm.”


“Low price is the last refuge of the marketer who has no guts.” - Seth Godin


Later on, Seth Godin also points out the difference between a brand and a logo with an eloquent example: both Nike and Hyatt have logos. However, if Nike would announce they are starting a hotel chain, we could all quite easily picture how Nike hotels would look like. This is because Nike has a brand. But if Hyatt would announce they are launching a collection of shoes, who could tell for sure what type of shoes they would make?


Finally, Seth Godin urges the necessity to invest in leaders, as the world has a shortage of leaders. Only they can drive companies to sustainable success. He explains the difference between management and leadership: leadership is a choice. Leadership is knowing where we want to go, but not necessarily how we are going to get there. It is also acknowledging that some things might be out of our control, but still managing to get team members on board. I just couldn’t agree more. I recently did an exercise and listed people within my professional network who truly inspire me and who are considered as leaders. The common denominator of all these managers was a clear vision and charisma. And guess what, charisma is something you can learn and build up, says Seth Godin. Phew, we are saved.


Bringing human connection to e-commerce experiences

Katrina Dodd, trendwatcher, on bringing human connection to e-commerce experiences.


Although it has been dictating our lives for the past year, COVID-19 is, fortunately, not here to stay. However, does it mean that we will get back to the life we left in March 2020? For a few weeks, I believed so but by now, it is more than clear that things will never be the same again – even if most of the world’s population gets vaccinated. What does it mean for companies and for marketing? That it’s not too late to jump on the digital transformation wagon.


“The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” - Chinese proverb


In 2020, e-commerce has reached new records. We have seen in the E-Commerce Barometer that no less than 20,000 webshops were created in Belgium 2020. COVID-19 has permanently changed some of our shopping habits, but humans are still social beings that like to escape from the digital world.


In fact, according to a survey by A.T. Kearney published in 2019, 81% of those aged 14-24 prefer in-store shopping. Even more important to know for businesses: when we shop with other people, we tend to buy more, both in the number of transactions and in transaction value.


Already for some time now social media do not only enable companies to showcase their products but also allow them to sell their products. But even for people, like me, who love shopping, buying online remains a chore of buying, that is not comparable to the joy of shopping I experience with in-store shopping.


Katrina Dodd presented two social shopping concepts: live shopping events and shared experiences, both with the goal of bringing a human connection to e-commerce experiences.


  1. Live shopping events can take the form of one-to-one or one-to-many events

One-to-one live shopping events are personalized virtual shopping tours, where one consumer is in direct contact with one real shopping assistant. GUCCI, the Italian fashion brand, launched GUCCI Live to connect with their remote clientele and provide the personal service associated with luxury. The brand goes even further, it is not simply using one of their multiple stores to showcase the products, but has created a filming set, with optimal lighting and professional cameras to bring the best shopping experience to their audience.


One-to-many live shopping events are events where a brand or an influencer showcases products in front of a live audience, either in a one-way or a two-way communication. Viya, a China-based influencer, has gathered no less than 37 million viewers during one single livestream event and generated 3 billion yuan in sales (about 390 million euro) on Singles Day, China’s biggest shopping event of the year. Companies like Procter & Gamble and Tesla have turned to Viya to introduce them to the Chinese market.


  1. Shared experiences and “squad shopping”

Consumers are seeking for peer-to-peer connection, and brands like Netflix, Instagram and Spotify have understood and capitalized on that, think about Netflix Party, Instagram Co-Watching and Spotify Group Session. As the term “squad shopping” coins it, it is about shopping with friends and relatives (Remember? Shopping together makes consumers buy more). Social e-commerce is a rising trend, it is expected to increase fivefold from 2017 to 2022 in China. One of the most popular platforms in China and one that you have probably heard about is Pinduoduo. Closer to home, companies like Squadded Shopping Party are bringing that concept to the West, via a Google extension that allows a group of friends to shop together, but remotely. Will that bring the joy back in shopping? Who wants to join my shopping squad and test it?


Why common sense is actually not so common

Martin Lindstrom, successful business book author, on why common sense is actually not so common, and how to develop it through empathy.

Martin Lindstrom starts his keynote by showing a picture of a TV remote control with several numeric pads and on/off buttons. He explains how he was in a hotel room watching TV but couldn’t switch off the device because the remote was too complex. In the end, he climbed underneath the cupboard to pull the plug off. A few years later, he coincidentally met one of the persons who worked on that remote control and finally got the chance to ask him “Why?”. The engineer explained that each numeric pad was designed by a different team: the one responsible for cable TV, the one responsible for internet TV, etc. It made sense for the company, but obviously it didn’t make sense for the user. The siloed way of working was literally reflected on the product.


This is a very tangible example of a lack of common sense. Common sense and empathy are strongly intertwined, says Martin Lindstrom. So he urges companies to show empathy towards consumers, as it is the only way to create great products and increase customer satisfaction.


“Empathy is a quality of character that can change the world.” - Barack Obama


He shows an experiment where a group of random people were getting a parking ticket. All these people of course were very upset. In the experiment, half of them were addressed by someone who showed empathy to the situation, by listening to the feelings of the subjects and acknowledging their disappointments. The other half didn’t encounter anyone. At the end of the experiment, the individuals were told to score their happiness level. In the latter group, the happiness level decreased by 10%. Not surprising. But in the first group, happiness didn’t remain at the same level: it even increased by 10% although they still had to pay for the parking ticket. The lesson here is that empathy doesn’t necessarily come with a solution or an immediate change, it is about observing, listening and acknowledging the situation.


“I don’t know what to say but I am glad you told me, we will figure this out together.” - Martin Lindstrom


The challenge for companies is to scale empathy across the organization because this is not only HR’s and marketing’s responsibility. It doesn’t happen overnight, but we can start small and make empathy very tangible. Three examples came to my mind. The first one is the yellow chair at Telenet. I have heard from my THoM colleagues who are working on projects at Telenet that in each meeting room, there is a yellow chair that represents the customer. The person sitting on that chair, in addition to his/her actual function, should also be the voice of the customer. I just love this idea.

The two last examples are related to Bpost, where I worked for three years. Every employer from the headquarters gets to have lunch with the CEO at least once. I remember sitting at the table of Koen Van Gerven together with 9 other colleagues and explaining my projects and challenges to him. Koen Van Gerven was genuinely interested in our stories and kept asking how he could help us.

The other example of empathy I experienced at Bpost is that every employer from the headquarters must go through an on-the-field experience of 3 days. On the first day, I was picking up mail and parcels with Louise, hopping on and off her van, scanning barcodes and lifting heavy bags. On the second day, I met up with Pierre at 5AM in the distribution center near Flagey, we sorted mail and hit 30.000 steps by walking through all the streets of Ixelles distributing mail to individuals and companies. On the last day, I got to visit one of the five sorting centers of bpost. That experience was crucial for me as a Product Manager because it made me realize that the slightest change I was making to my products could have an impact, in a good or a bad way, on so many stakeholders.


To me, customer experience is the common thread in these three keynotes. I could summarize the key takeaways of the event in one sentence: empathic leaders create experiences worth telling because they genuinely listen and act upon it. So, let’s start thinking outside in, and identify small steps we can take to diffuse empathy across the organizations we work for.

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