The Importance of Empathy for Tech Providers

I came across an interesting remark the other day:

“Marketing is emotionally harder than product management.”

There were several things embedded in that observation, so let me unpack them a bit to explain why the comment has stuck with me for the last few days.

As a marketer, you’re always listening—to what the press is saying about what your company is doing, what analysts say your company should be doing, what customers and prospects think they want your product to do, where your executive staff sees future opportunities and wants to take the business. You have to synthesize and triangulate among all those opinions and then apply your own judgement to come up with an effective and sustainable course of action.

This is also true for product managers, but there’s a fundamental difference in focus: the product manager uses this information to prioritize features within an appropriate time-to-market framework. There’s a fairly tangible, black-and-white outcome to those decisions: you either sell more products, or you don’t. You can quantify your impact in bottom-line terms.

A marketer’s job is to do two things:

1)      Make the world at large aware of his/her company and product’s existence, and give the world a reason to want to learn more.

2)      Find ways to help prospective customers balance a product’s deficiencies (there are always some—see above about feature prioritization) against the particular value they would derive from deploying your product vs another one or maintaining the status quo. (NB. No, this doesn’t have to mean lying. This is important. It means helping the prospect understand whether the product would materially improve life for them.)

Here’s the challenge: Sales is a 1:1 exercise. Salespeople look their prospects in the eye and get feedback from both words and body language. Marketers rarely do. Marketers generally sit in a back room and try to find ways to say “Pick us!” that will be meaningful to the broadest number of people. Rarely does a prospect say, “The scales fell from my eyes when I read your whitepaper, and now I simply must have your product.” Usually their interest is the result of a hundred different times they’ve come across your product name, most of which barely registered consciously at the time. This can lead the marketer to experience moments like this:

Each prospective customer has its own somewhat unique set of circumstances and corresponding requirements. The individuals involved recognize and will usually articulate their “objective” set of requirements, to which the product manager typically responds with features. What many individuals are less conscious of—and even less likely to articulate to a vendor—are the emotions involved in their decision-making. These can range from “This is the hot new thing and if I get a chance to learn it, my career will henceforth be awesome” to “What if it doesn’t work in our environment as promised and I get fired?”

So the marketer has to be emotionally “on”, always. He or she is constantly parsing and responding to this subtext—often from afar, in a very generalized way—and has little to work with: development of a certification path as a marketing tool, perhaps, or an ROI or TCO calculator. But mostly just words. A lot of words. Words that address fears, resonate with people’s hopes and dreams, and provide the prospect of relief from the more tedious and trying aspects of IT life—all without disturbing the prospect’s self-image as an entirely rational and “serious” decision-maker.

I submit, however, that many product managers fall into the same trap as their prospects, in that many start from a “rational” perspective in defining a product:

Customers A, F and R tell me they’re having trouble with outages because the hamsters turning the wheels inside our switches aren’t fed a steady, load-balanced stream of bits. If we add support for 802.1xyzpdQ, we should be able to reduce hamster death by 17%. I’ll go tell Marketing to say that we improve uptime and increase network efficiency by 34% (full duplex)! And when the A, F and R deals come in, I’ll be able to show a 14.6% revenue bump.

It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that more than a few friends on the user side of IT have expressed their frustration with their vendors in general—and often product managers as a group—in terms of greed and “lack of empathy”. It’s striking when the “E” word comes up, but it does more often than you might expect when people trust you.

What if instead the standard point of departure for product definition was, “What can I do to make my users’ lives easier?” This is unfamiliar territory for many technical people, and it lacks the cut-and-dried comfort of “If Feature X, then 85% probability of $Y”.

Yet this is what technology revolutions are made of.

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