Brian Carroll | Connecting to What The Customer Cares About

Respect For People is one of the important themes in working toward Sales Process Excellence.  Often, we think of it in terms of employees, but it also applies to how we approach customers and prospects.  In both cases, it is looking from another person’s perspective.

As a senior leader, you can’t be involved in every sales conversation or help develop every marketing campaign.  In this discussion, Brian Carroll shares a way to listen to how our organization is talking about our customers to see how well we are connecting to what the customer cares about.  He calls it empathetic marketing.

Brian encourages us to think about:

  • What the customer is really buying
  • What the decision means to the person making it
  • How to recognize when we are saying what we want the customer to do rather than what they want

He also shares his experience as a leader introducing his business development team to a different way of thinking about their prospects.  It resulted in a 300% increase in sales accepted leads.  And more.

Listen now.

Mentioned in This Episode:

Michael Webb:   You’re listening to the Sales Process Excellence Podcast with Michael Webb. B2B sales and marketing works to find the highest quality prospects, reach decision makers, and sell value. Operational excellence uses data and systems thinking to make changes that cause improvement and eliminate waste. My name is Michael Webb and this is the Sales Process Excellence Podcast. In the next 30 to 40 minutes, we’re going to destroy the myth that these two groups conflict, and show you how to bring both strategies together to create more wealth for your company and your customers.

Michael Webb:   Hello, everyone. This is Michael Webb and I’m excited today to have on the phone a friend of mine from many years ago, Brian Carroll. Brian, welcome here.

Brian Carroll:        Thanks for having me.

Michael Webb:   It would be great if you could tell the audience a little bit about your background and then how we got connected, oh, I guess it was probably 15 years ago, or 14 years ago.

Brian Carroll:        Yeah, yeah. For everyone, my background, I’ve focused primarily on the intersection of marketing and sales. I wrote a book, Lead Generation for the Complex Sale. I’ve worked with the who’s who of technology, really forward thinkers. I had an opportunity to work with some of the largest, most well-known brands. SAP, Google, the marketing tech world, Eloqua, Marketo.

Brian Carroll:        So as you think about all the changes we’re experiencing today, very early on, we were implementing technology to connect with customers and develop leads for sales teams, and so, Michael, you and I connected around your work with sales process and the notion of Six Sigma and continually optimizing. That’s where I came from. We’ll talk about a little bit, but I had this Jerry Maguire moment, 2014, working with my own team and how we connect with customers, so I shifted my work and focus around not just looking at how do we get more leads and higher quality leads and driving pipeline, but just really recognizing that we no longer have an issue around conversion in the same way we did. It’s actually harder now to connect with customers. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past three years is seeing empathy as a sales and marketing super power.

Michael Webb:   As you went from your own firm, which was, Leads to Sales I think it was called, and it was acquired by MarketingExperiments group, right?

Brian Carroll:        Yeah, so MECLABS owns MarketingSherpa and MarketingExperiments, and you know, I admired both of the brands so much. I was speaking at a conference and just the things we were focusing on, what I wanted to do is bring more science and more research, because in best practices you take something you learned and you apply it to another customer base and it doesn’t work. Experience doesn’t always determine you’re going to be successful, and what I wanted to understand is why.

Brian Carroll:        Most people focus on how do you get marketing working. And what I’ve always wondered is why isn’t it working. That’s why I really loved being able to sell my company to MECLABS because we were trying to understand what really works and why by understanding how customers make choices. While I was there, we saw the motivation, the customers, the most important thing. After I left MECLABS to do my own work, I’ve really focused on this notion of customer motivation, because neuroscience, a breakthrough happened in 2014 where it had been previous to that, but just finding… Antonio Damasio is a neuroscientist that found we aren’t thinking machines that feel, we’re feeling machines that think.

Brian Carroll:        So, that’s how all the focus I had previously done on value proposition, and messaging, and specific channels and cadences, what I realized I was missing is this deeper understanding of how emotions drive all of our decisions. That’s the important thing that I’m working on today is how do we better connect to what people care about.

Michael Webb:   So, that’s why you’re so interesting because you understand the scientific mindset, and then you’re also into this, your new positioning is around empathy. How do other people feel? What are they thinking? What motivates them? Which is traditionally thought of as a soft fuzzy, you know, you can’t measure that kind of thing. So let’s start out with what is empathetic marketing? Is that what you’re calling it?

Brian Carroll:        Yeah, yeah.

Michael Webb:   What is that, empathy-based.

Brian Carroll:        So, why it matters. I always start with why. Why should you care about this? What I saw is today we have more ways of reaching our customers. Every few months we have a new channel we can reach our customers through. The other thing is we have more data about our customers, behavioral data. I just went through an experience with someone on their own website where I knew that they have my behavioral data, they have my chat data, they have information about who I am because Clearbit and other tools and tell them personal data, and so there’s all this research around persuasion.

Brian Carroll:        Cialdini’s work around how do we use behavioral economics and tools to connect with people. We have all the stuff, and what’s happening though is that it’s still not working. The issue has shifted from focused on conversion that the gap we have is connection, connecting to what our customers care about. Ironically. So you have more ways and more data, but actually connecting what your customers care about has never been harder. So when I talk to marketers, that’s the struggle. And what empathy based marketing is, is moving your focus from if I were the customer, how would this appeal to me? Most people think, well, I’m already empathetic. I already care about my customers. I’m already curious about them.

Brian Carroll:        But the issue is, is that what science has shown is that we think we’re being empathetic. We think we’re thinking about the customer, but we’re using our own bias, our own preferences. We’re trying to get what we want, and we actually aren’t connecting to what our customers care about. So what do they do? They read in-boxes to delete things, not to read them. They ignore messages. They are immune because what’s happening is that they got to care about it. We got to connect with the care about. And then the shift is, is no longer about funnels. It’s about becoming a Sherpa.

Brian Carroll:        So, here’s the way to sum up what’s empathy-based marketing. It’s being your customer to understand what they care about so that you can create messages that resonate and focus on what matters, either problems they have they don’t want, results they want they don’t yet have, not only that, but you’re like a Sherpa helping a mountain climber climb the mountain. You know, they still got to climb, but we now are moving to this mode of you can’t make someone do something, but what you can do is equip and enable them.

Brian Carroll:        You can bring science to this process. It’s just you have to appreciate, it’s the emotion. Even in complex sales that’s way bigger now because the stakes are higher. It’s riskier to make bad decisions.

Michael Webb:   So when you say, “Shifting from conversion to connection,” by connection you mean something that is valuable to them in their activity goal, mission, something tactical that they can use it they’re interested in?

Brian Carroll:        Yeah, and I think that the thing is, is when people, especially for your listeners who have complex sales, people are not buying a solution or product or service, what they’re buying is they’re buying something to enable them to support a change they want to make. And change is hard because when you’re trying to get multiple people involved, and you need to get buy in, you actually need to emphasize points of agreement. You actually need to help the champion, or the mobilizer, to be able to bring an idea into their organization. And here’s the thing, people, when I talk with companies, and if you look at sales pipelines, they are not losing deals to competition as much as they’re losing deals to companies doing nothing.

Michael Webb:   Right. No decision, yup.

Brian Carroll:        No decision. It’s the status quo. My premise is, is the reason why there’s no decision is that for the buyer, the question is this, they may start out with hope. “Hey, I can make a change in my company.” “Hey, this is going to help us address the need,” and so you have somebody who’s researching to solve a problem or to get a result, and then they move to this place of, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to get my team involved in this? Is it worth it? How is my team going to see this? What’s this going to mean is how the things I need to make?” What we focus on often is the company value, like what’s the value to the company? What’s the value to the department?

Brian Carroll:        What I’m saying is you actually have to recognize the value to that person because Gartner now, it was CEB, in their challenge sale, challenge your customer, they found that personal decision making actually is the biggest factor, that personal value, that question of, “Is it worth it? How am I going to get this done?” Because when you’re trying to drive change, you’ve got to get other people involved and it’s hard. It’s painful.

Brian Carroll:        If you ask customers about their buying experience, it’s never been easy. They don’t want to repeat it again. And so that’s why we need to shift our compass from, it’s actually not a lead conversion thing. It’s really helping that customer connect, and then also help them drive the connections inside their company so they can ultimately make a decision, make a change, and ultimately free us. We just don’t sell a deal. We have lifetime value with customers. They don’t buy just one time. There’s ongoing relationships. And so you actually need to think about what’s the transformation you’re making for your customer.

Michael Webb:   Before we dive deeper into that, let’s circle back. Why is this important to senior executives? Why do they need to pay attention to this?

Brian Carroll:        Well, I think there’s a few things. First of all, there’s the culture of your organization. So if your team’s focused, and you may think your team’s doing this already, and I would say we’re entering fourth quarters, we record this right now.

Michael Webb:   Yeah.

Brian Carroll:        If people aren’t on plan, there’s often this anxiety aspect of how do I get on plan? And so if you just want to look at how we’re wired, when we feel anxious, it can do some good things for us, or when we feel rushed, the cortisol in our brain helps us focus. But also what it gets activated is our amygdala, which is the fight or flight. Why this is important for a leader, is I’ll say there’s this inner game of sales marketing, which drives the outer game. So if your team feels fear or anxiety, what begins happening is we start becoming more sociopathic because our fight or flight is activated.

Brian Carroll:        How do I get my needs met? How do I achieve my goal? And so what happens is I’ve noticed when I talk with marketers, and we really, really dig in, that email address doesn’t represent a person. Like when you have access to someone’s inbox, that’s an intimate thing. That’s the first thing they often see in the morning, and you have to think about, is what I’m sharing actually useful, helpful, valuable, worthwhile or not.

Brian Carroll:        So I’m just saying there’s this inner game that we can become more sociopathic in survival mode, and what you need to move from is helping your team be more in where we think about others. In our cerebral cortex is where empathy happens. It’s where caring about others happens. It’s where being curious about customers and what they want happens. To get someone to that place, we actually need to find ways of removing pressure.

Brian Carroll:        Often leaders put pressure on their team. “We got to do this.” And frankly, I used to be that guy. I used to have huddles with my team and I was that guy. I wrote a story that when I helped my team and stated this question, “What would you do if you weren’t afraid? What would you do for this customer if you weren’t in a rush right now? What’s the best way to to help them?” I’ve always felt the best selling in marketing feels like helping, because it is is. I even shift my inside sales team, for example, from being conversion-oriented, how do we get more sales accepted leads and opportunities, to ask the question, “Hey, what motivated this person to download this white paper? What were they trying to get done? What were they trying to achieve?”

Brian Carroll:        Then the biggest thing I needed to do is focus my team on trying to understand that and just simply helping that person get what it is they originally wanted. Here’s the thing, and we can share a back story, but when I started my team doing that, not focusing on getting leads, but simply connecting to what, and here’s the question. Here’s a power question your listeners can write down” “What motivated you to do X, Y, Z?” So, “What motivated you to download that ebook? What were you trying to get done?”

Brian Carroll:        You can follow it up. Listen. They may say, “Well, I was researching for my boss,” or, “I was trying to get this done.” Now our tendency is to jump to solution, but what if you actually connected to the next level? When I had my team do that, it took a lot of coaching, but we actually focused on being more empathetic and just more like a hotel concierge helps guests, instead of conversion to people. Within six months we generated 303% more sales-accepted leads by not actually focusing on getting leads, just actually understanding motivation and helping.

Brian Carroll:        This is why it matters to leaders, is that we focus on the short game of how are we going to get the results this quarter. What I’m saying is, what you need to understand is if you talk about customer experience and your team isn’t thinking this way, you’re just talking, or empathy, it’s easy to talk about, but it’s actually hard to do. So there’s processes you can implement around messaging and other things, but you actually have to set the culture to get your team to do this.

Michael Webb:   In summarizing what you said, why is this important to senior executives? I heard two things, which we sort of traditionally think of as opposing each other. One of them is it’s good for senior executives, important for them, because the productivity of your business is going to increase if you understand how to do this, and of course senior executives, they need that to happen. The business needs to be more productive. It needs to be more profitable. We need more revenue, more yield from our investment in sales and marketing. That’s good.

Michael Webb:   Flip side though, you said, you can’t be demanding it. You can’t be creating an environment where you’re pressuring people to make this happen because that creates the opposite reaction sort of automatically. Did I get that right?

Brian Carroll:        Yeah, and that’s the tension, right? I think that’s really the challenge as leaders is we all are under pressure. There isn’t a single person I talk to in sales and marketing who feels that they have time to reflect, or that they have time to to rest or set aside time. We’re always on. What I found is, is that we need to help our teams feel safe in an environment that’s competitive. And the other side to this is then there’s practical things you can do, so you can have empathy be a point focus thing. Just saying, “Hey, what if we improved our messaging?” I can talk about how to empathy-power your messaging. There’s a tool called the empathy index, but I would say the lasting change, or if you want to have a lasting competitive advantage that the companies that actually undergird their people to not be fear-based and onto that place, they have a better resulting experience.

Brian Carroll:        And so Harvard Business Review for the past few years has shown there’s been a study of the top 100 most empathetic companies and all of them have better financial returns and results when they care about their customers. Everyone of course says they care about them, but you actually got to go that next level of empowering your team to take that and make it real.

Michael Webb:   I talked with a senior executive recently. He told me that, you know, he feels like he has had sort of a challenge because he likes to facilitate, he likes for people to talk about things in open environment and so forth and empower people, but there’s inherent conflicts among the people, and different opinions of the people who work for him, right? And so he has to figure out when is he going to stamp his feet and say, “No, we have to do things this way.” That’s a big challenge for senior executives to figure that out, right?

Brian Carroll:        I’ll build on the story before. My Jerry Maguire moment, and this is as I was driving change with my team, it was difficult and I’ll give you some examples. So 2014, someone sent me a video. It was a CBS news story about a company and two things stood out. First they said this company has an endorsement. The CEO is endorsed by Mother Teresa while she was still alive. And the secondly is that he had been nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Now, here’s the shocking part. They said, “You’ll never guess what this company does. They’re a collection agency.” So I’m watching this. I’m a lead generation guy, and I’m thinking, you’re kidding me. Mother Teresa endorsed the CEO of a collection agency? What? Why?

Brian Carroll:        And here’s why is that Bill Bartmann had gotten inspiration from his team. He said, “I want to practice compassion collections.” They’re over a billion dollar company. I think they’re based out of Tulsa, Oklahoma. The company’s called CFS2. He empowered his employees to propose some ideas in how they could do it better, so this wasn’t even his idea. In a group in place said, “What if we actually helped our customers deal with why they can’t pay their bills? They lost their jobs, so what if we actually help them get a new job?” You know, and all the things required to do that.

Brian Carroll:        And they’ve listed, they knew all the reasons, because they heard all the reasons, but what do most collection agencies do? They’d beat customers over the head. They threaten them. They embraced this experiment and they focused on doing it, and they’re in 35 states, maybe more now, but they literally did that. And here’s the bottom line impact. So I’m watching this and it’s only a two minute, 30-second segment.

Brian Carroll:        The newsperson is like, What’s the impact of doing this?” And he was like, “Giving away all the free services, we’re 200% more profitable than we were.” It’s not only that, single-handedly they’re reforming the collections industry, like they’re hated because… You know, in fact they’re trying to pass laws to make it better for customers.

Brian Carroll:        So I’m watching this, as I said before, the best marketing is somebody that feels like helping. I was just like, “Oh my gosh.” Monday morning, this was Sunday night, I sat down with my team and I said, “You guys, watch this video and I want to say, how could we do this for our customers?” It was crickets, and someone raised their hand and said, “Brian, if we focus on helping people like this, then how are we going to get any leads?”

Brian Carroll:        In the first three weeks as we tried this, it was awkward because we had to change how we’re doing things. I had someone say, “I’m going to quit. I don’t even know what my purpose anymore.” And so there was things I had to do to work with our team, like their compensation was based on leads. So we need to address how they’re being paid. Whatever you made in your highest month, getting your highest level leads, I’ll make sure you get paid that because I want you to focus on the customer. And then we had to go through-

Michael Webb:   That took some guts.

Brian Carroll:        Well, it did. I had to get buy in from our CEO. You know, he was supportive of the idea because we said we’re about customer first, but making it happen was then coaching people, because we literally had these behaviors. So I had team members who were fighting about what’s the best way to do it.

Brian Carroll:        There’s this point of when you’re trying to make change in your company, there’s going to be disagreement and there’s going to be challenge, and people are not going to be happy. My team when we first tried doing this was not happy, because I disrupted how we did things. What my challenge was is how do we move this from my idea to us talking together where it became our idea.

Brian Carroll:        There’s this part of leaders sometimes relent, and there’s something where you need to be differentiated because emotionally when you’re trying to drive change, research shows emotions are caught like a cold. They spread like a virus. And so you need to inoculate your team around this negativity. One bad negative person can actually negatively impact the whole team. And so what I found is, I as a leader had to be differentiated, so that’s the inner game. I needed to be present to what was happening in the room. And that’s there with how I feel emotionally, because it wasn’t easy.

Brian Carroll:        There was times where I felt like, am I doing the right thing? You know, this isn’t working. And we saw modest improvements, but I just knew big picture. When I saw this 200% improvement, and I was like if a collection agency can do this, surely… If a collection agency can revolutionize and change things, what would happen if we actually tried to help our customers solve problems in the same way? It’s different, and they’re a consumer company, we’re B2B. We had a complex sale. My main thing is it’s worth it. I can share some links of things I found helpful in that.

Michael Webb:   Yeah, that would be great. So I’m hearing a couple things here. Just what strikes me is that you are doing something counterintuitive, right? A collection agency was actually helping people solve their problem. And as in marketing, you know, in talking to someone who calls in over the phone, you’re finding what problem are they trying to solve and seeing if you can give them something that would help.

Michael Webb:   At first blush it sounds like, oh, we’re being altruistic, but we’re not. We’re actually finding something that’s important to them and important to us, right? So it’s a win-win by doing that, but it’s a win-win you’ve kind of pulled out of thin air because you understand them a little better. You’re spending time to try to understand how they think a little better, right?

Brian Carroll:        I like how you’ve teased that out, and really what you’re doing is you’re demonstrating value to someone. There’s two ways I found to building relationships with people. One is having conversations, you know, and then in that you’re doing empathetic listening. I hear you on that listing to reply. So this is stuff Stephen Covey talked about in 7 Habits.

Brian Carroll:        But also what you can do is I’m saying take it to the next level of empathetic listening, was trying to listen to what’s motivating, what’s behind what’s being said? You’re not just processing the content. You want to understand the context and what the feelings are. So someone won’t say, “I’m feeling frustrated.” You can often hear they are, or they describe the scenario, and you’re like, “Wow, it sounds like you’re frustrated.”

Michael Webb:   The other thing I’m hearing in this is that in the whole experiment, scientific kind of thing, I suspect that companies, and especially some marketers kind of get trapped in wanting to look at the data, meaning stuff that came from a server, stuff that people filled out in a form, they think that’s data. But in reality, what people say and their emotional intonation that you can pick up, and the insights you can get by asking them, having a real conversation with them, that’s data too. A lot of people don’t use that. They don’t pay attention to that. Is that right?

Brian Carroll:        Yeah, and I would say, for example, people do a lot of research to build personas, for example, and I think it’s useful, but personas don’t tell you what stories will matter to that customer, because you actually don’t know what the context is of their particular situation. So if you treated every title, for example, a CIO in the same way, even if they work in a like company of the same size, the story of what they’re trying to do and what they care about is different.

Brian Carroll:        This is where, the second part I said, conversation and listening, but there’s this thing. The term is reciprocal altruism. In Cialdini’s book, he called it the reciprocity effect, but the point is when you do something for someone literally without expecting anything in return, so the collection agency, why should I trust you? They could reply, “Hey, when we help you do better financially, we make more money. We’re invested together.”

Brian Carroll:        The point is is when you’re thinking about connecting with people, there are customers you’re talking to who shouldn’t buy, and I remember I interviewed Jill Raleigh. She was the number one sales rep at Eloqua. She spent time telling customers, “You shouldn’t buy this yet. Yeah, you’re not ready for us.” “But we want to buy.” “No, here’s what you need to do.” What’s amazing is is that when you can actually… That’s the level that Carrie and I were talking about. She walked away from people who wanted to buy because she wanted to actually empower them and thought big picture of success beyond the deal.

Brian Carroll:        What’s amazing, she took that in Eloqua, she went into Marketo, and has done very well. The whole mindset is is when I interview customers, what made the biggest difference for you? Here’s what I hear. “My sales rep was my advocate.” “I felt they cared more about me, in me achieving a result than their company’s profitability.” “I felt like they went above and beyond.” Those are the things, and think about all of that. That’s all emotional. Despite all the data, despite all the tech, when I said we need to focus on connection before conversion, it’s that connection that actually drives conversion.

Brian Carroll:        The good news is is those who embrace this are going to do dramatically better, but it starts with this intent that CEOs, you need to go beyond saying, “I care about how my customers feel and their experience,” to look at how are our employees actually caring about our customers and their experience? How do I help empower them so they can actually do that? You know, it’s similar to any processes. That’s the last mile, that as a leader, if you take away one thing from our conversation today is how do you empower your team to focus on connection ahead of conversion, connecting and what your customers care about, and from that, that’s innovation. That’s human-centered design. That’s where new ideas come from. That’s where better sales outcomes come from, better marketing, et cetera.

Michael Webb:   And from what I’m also hearing in here, and then we need to wrap this up. This is a great conversation by the way. It’s exciting, because what you’re saying is that while the emotion is so important, we have to get at the emotion. But in order to do that, what you’re really doing is getting to the reasons that are underlying the emotion. Having this openness and this ability for people to be genuinely curious, to understand other people, that’s how you do it.

Michael Webb:   So man, this is fascinating. It sounds like such a deceptively simple thing, and those are the things that can be most powerful. So if someone wants to learn more about your work and they want to get in contact with you, how could they do it?

Brian Carroll:        So, Markempa, it stands for where marketing meets empathy, I have a lot of free resources, and if you go to the free resources you can read the how-to primer on what is empathy-based marketing. Then also you can find me on LinkedIn as well, and I’m fairly active there. If you have questions feel free to reach out.

Michael Webb:   Brian, thank you very much. I would love to have you, there’s so many more things we could talk about and case examples we can go into. I would love to have you back on the show again, so thank you very much for being here.

Brian Carroll:        Thank you, Michael.

Michael Webb:   Until next time, bye bye.

Michael Webb:   This Sales Process Excellence Podcast is sponsored by Sales Performance Consultants. Discover how to improve your B2B sales with


Michael Webb

Michael Webb founded Sales Performance Consultants to create a data-driven alternative to the slogans and shallow impact offered by typical sales training, sales consulting, and CRM companies. Michael helped organize and delivered the keynote speeches for the first conferences ever held on applying Six Sigma to marketing and sales. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

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