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Practicing Empathy Marketing

"You must be able to recognize that customers often don’t fully understand their own needs simply because they don’t know that alternative products and procedures exist."

In today’s competitive marketplace, we’re all fighting over a finite set of customer-driven specifications: “I want X, made on X, displayed on X.” And because we’re all working under strict specs provided by our customers, and because we’re all working with essentially the same technology and offering basically the same end product, it’s easy to think that the only competitive edge we can have over each another is price. “I will sell that 13-ounce banner vinyl for a nickel-a-square-foot cheaper than they will,” often becomes the weapon of choice.

But, there is an under-used secret weapon that can help your company set itself apart from the rest of the pack: empathy marketing – striving to know the customers so completely that you begin to predict and to know their needs even better than they do. I believe empathy is one of humankind’s greatest and most underutilized attributes. Most often associated with the “helping professions,” empathy is equally as essential to the success of for-profit entrepreneurs and is a surefire way to trump your competition.

To effectively compete in today’s market, you must be able to recognize that customers often don’t fully understand their own needs simply because they don’t know that alternative products and procedures exist – that’s your job.

What the customer really wants
The empathy marketing approach requires two things: First, studying your customer’s business model – what is the client’s ultimate goal? Second, it’s about knowing our industry and its evolving technology, products, and services. In most cases, we tend to let the customer take the driver’s seat. But if the customer doesn’t have an in-depth knowledge of our technology and capabilities, how should they know how to best have their graphics needs met? Traditionally, customers determine what they buy; in empathy marketing, however, we believe they shouldn’t always be the ones making those decisions.

Empathy marketing puts a burden on us to offer our customers innovative and custom tailored solutions. To meet their needs, you must anticipate their objectives, meet with your vendors to try out new products and services, buy versatile equipment, and maintain a staff with developed, diverse skills.

At my shop, we have attempted to turn this customer-specified ordering process around. For instance, one of the most common misguided customer notions is to order something like a step-and-repeat photo backdrop on 13-ounce banner vinyl. While that is what they think they want, we know their needs and what they really are looking for.

So, we ask a set of clarifying questions: “Do you want to use the backdrop multiple times?” Yes. “Do you want it to glare from a flash or a video light making the sponsor logo links unreadable in pictures?” No. “Do you want wrinkles?” No. “Do you want it to be heavy, bulky, or hard to transport?” No. “Do you want your brand to look cheap and tacky?” No. So, we’ll respond: “What you are asking us for will be everything that you don’t want. Let us show you what you do want.”

In another case, a new customer recently indicated that they wanted perforated vinyl for an architectural glass installation. Every vendor but us was more than happy to take that job as specified – but every vendor also knew that an alternative solution would better suit that customer. To help the customer think outside the box, we again asked clarifying questions. “Will the glass be viewed from both sides?” Yes. “Is it a high traffic area?” Yes. “Can people touch the glass?” Yes. “Is it new construction?” Yes. “Is the glass exposed to the elements?” Yes. “How long do you want the install to last?” Ten years. “Let me talk to you about some other products that will better meet your needs.”

Using our Screen Truepress Jet2500UV, we were able to output the image like so: image, a layer of white, a layer of black, a layer of white, and then the image, and laminated it. This way, the graphic was protected from the elements and abrasion, plus they had a different image on each side that had text that read correctly from either viewpoint. But had we not come forth with this idea, the customer would have never known that it was what they were really after all along.

Innovating solutions
Customer misdirection is perhaps most apparent in the tradeshow industry. Not too long ago, most large tradeshow booths were built from plywood-skinned, wood-framed “hard wall.” If you were going to go after a customer’s tradeshow graphics business, then your role was to print vinyl that covered the walls. The hard-wall booths were not only expensive to build, but weighed a ton, which meant exorbitant costs for shipping and storage.

Then, about 15 years ago, industry innovators empathized with tradeshow customers and developed a more cost-effective solution – and the first fabric-tensioning systems were born. With aluminum tubing used to form the shape, fabric was tensioned to create solid-looking walls. The booths now cost less to build, to ship, and to store. Walk any tradeshow floor today and tension fabric is everywhere.

For a recent customer that regularly ships booths to Europe, we developed a system to rent truss in Germany, England, and France, and then developed fabric-tension systems for the specific truss configurations using CAD drawings. Now, we ship that customer’s booth graphics by air in two plastic bins for only a few hundred dollars – not hundreds of thousands. The graphics arrive in days, not weeks, and look great. We have reduced their total costs of European booths by up to 80 percent. Why didn’t they just ask for this in the first place? Because they didn’t know the option existed.

Empathy pays off
The best reward from utilizing empathy marketing has been that our favorite and long-term customers have come to depend on and seek out our empathy – separating us from our competition. We’ve become a part of our customers’ planning teams for events and projects. The process has also completely eliminated bidding from the sales process because we’re no longer selling a commodity – we’re selling solutions.

All of our staff members now know the importance of studying the customers’ business models, and they always ask questions and listen regarding the customers’ experiences with digital printing, marketing, and display graphics. We encourage our staff to read the trade magazines, go to the tradeshows to see what is new in the market, and to set up meetings with manufacturers of media and equipment to stay knowledgeable about their latest offerings. Our staff also makes it a habit to suggest new products and service offerings to our company principals when they become aware of a customer’s needs. When all of these elements are in place, our team can effectively apply empathy marketing, improve our customer relationships, distinguish the company from competitors, and grow the business.

Craig Miller is a principal shareholder in Las Vegas-based Pictographics, (pictographics.com) where he is also director of military and law-enforcement projects, the company's defense-contracting division.

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