Empathy became one of the hottest topics in marketing last year. Yesterday, I performed a Google search using the term empathy in marketing for the period of March 1, 2020 through March 31, 2021. The search returned over 5.5 million results.
Marketing thought leaders and practitioners have long recognized that empathy plays a valuable role in marketing, but the COVID-19 pandemic elevated the importance of infusing marketing actions and communications with empathy. In a global survey of marketing decision makers conducted last fall by Salesforce, 81% of the respondents said their prioritization of providing customers with empathetic, personalized messages had increased because of the pandemic.
Social scientists generally define empathy as the ability to recognize, understand, and share the thoughts and feelings of another person. To develop empathy, marketers need to put themselves in their customers' shoes in order to understand and feel what their customers are thinking and feeling. With these insights, marketers will be better able to create content and messaging that will resonate emotionally and rationally with customers.
Empathy is also vital for effective B2B marketing because empathetic marketing communications will signal that a company is worthy of a customer's trust. And trust is the single most critical component of strong, long-lasting customer relationships. To be clear, empathy alone cannot create trust, but empathetic communications will make customers more inclined to extend their trust.
How Trust Arises
Trust has been widely studied by psychologists and other social scientists, so we have a sound understanding of what creates a willingness to trust and how trust develops. Most social scientists agree that an individual's willingness to trust another person or an organization - and the level of trust that will develop - largely depends on the perceived trustworthiness of the other person or organization. Most scientists also agree that the trustworthiness of a person or organization is primarily based on three factors - ability, integrity, and benevolence.
Therefore, the willingness of a potential buyer or an existing customer to trust a vendor depends on whether - and to what extent - the vendor exhibits these three antecedents of trustworthiness. In the trust context, ability and integrity mean what they normally do, but benevolence has a special meaning. The essence of benevolence is putting the interest of another person or organization above your own.
Ability, integrity, and benevolence are equally important for the development of trust, but benevolence is the most potent source of differentiation because it is the rarest of the three trustworthiness attributes. Benevolence is rare, not because most companies are intentionally "malevolent," but because the importance of benevolence is usually underappreciated.
The Importance of Benevolence
There isn't a lot of recent research regarding the role of benevolence in business relationships, but a 2016 survey of 2,400 consumers by MECLABS Institute shows why benevolence is so important. For this study, MECLABS divided the survey participants into two equal groups. One group (the "satisfied customers") were asked to think about a company they were highly satisfied with when answering the survey questions. The other group (the "unsatisfied customers") were asked to think about a company they were very unsatisfied with.
When the unsatisfied customers were asked which of thirteen statements were true about their experience with the company, the most frequently selected statement was: "The company does not put my needs and wants above its own business goals." In this survey, 60% of the satisfied customers said the company often or always puts their needs before its business goals, compared to only 16% of the unsatisfied customers.
This study also demonstrated how benevolence contributes to important and valuable business outcomes. MECLABS asked survey participants how likely they were to take several actions, and the following table shows the stark differences between the responses of satisfied vs. unsatisfied customers.
The MECLABS study showed that the "value chain" of benevolence works like this: Benevolence contributes to a perception of trustworthiness, which enhances the development of trust. And trust contributes to a higher level of customer satisfaction, which leads to improved business outcomes.
So, practicing benevolence isn't only "the right thing to do," it's also a powerful driver of business performance. And empathetic marketing communications are a vital link in the customer trust value chain.
Top image courtesy of EKG Technician Salary via Flickr (CC).