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How to bring empathy to your customer experience strategy



How to bring empathy to your customer experience strategy

“You have two assets without which you cannot have a business – customers and employees,” said Natalie Petouhoff. “Yet they’re not on the balance sheet and we don’t design experiences to maximize their potential.”

Dr. Petouhoff works on customer experience business and value consulting, as well as sales enablement, with the executive team at Genesys, a cloud CX platform. Her new book, co-written with Genesys CEO and Chairman Tony Bates, argues that empathy is key to solving CX and EX (employee experience) challenges.

Empathy in Action, available next month from IdeaPress, is not a quick-read-and-discard effort. It’s a substantial volume which bolsters cheerleading for empathetic marketing with detailed advice on how to push a business up the maturity curve, from transactional marketing, through interaction and engagement, to empathy. The book shows how to remove “blind spots,” how to increase customer and employee lifetime value, and how to focus on empathy-based business value — increasing financial success by focusing on the customer and employee; putting them, indeed, on the balance sheet.

A history of efficiency

It almost goes without saying that the history of business is not a history of empathy but a history of efficiency. “What businesses have done – and this historical footprint goes back to the first industrial revolution – is focus on efficiency, to the cost of the employee and the customer,” said Petouhoff. “Henry Ford made one model, right? There was no choice or personalization. We’ve kind of carried that forward, this historical footprint of efficiency and effectiveness at all costs.”

While everyone is talking about CX (and increasingly about EX too), the promise hasn’t yet delivered. “Part of the reason it hasn’t delivered is the perspective from which we create those experiences. We’re all customers and employees and we’ve all had those experiences that make us stop and say, ‘What on earth are they thinking? This is horrible.’ The point of the book is to say, stop doing that – it doesn’t make any sense.” Employees are voting with their feet right now. Customers, Petouhoff observes, “are voting with their mouse.”

“Most of us have taken a very business-centric point of view about how to create an experience, whether it’s for the customer or the employee,” Petouhoff said. Businesses continue to focus on offering products and services, often commoditized, rather than great experiences. There are exceptions, of course: “You look at businesses like Airbnb, Netflix or Tesla – they’ve created the experience economy. We all expect great experiences and yet it’s so interesting how difficult it is for companies to get out of their own way.”

The true meaning of empathy

In order to understand the concept of empathetic experiences, it’s first necessary to understand empathy. Don’t confuse it with sympathy. Sympathy is about feeling sorry for someone else’s misfortune. Empathy is about stepping into their shoes. You can be sympathetic without being empathetic (“I’m sorry for what you’re going through — I can’t imagine what it’s like”).

In other words, empathy doesn’t reduce to caring and compassion. “The word ’empathy’ to us means taking a look at something from another person’s point of view,” said Petouhoff — and the book underlines this: “It is the conscious decision to focus on the needs of another person from their point of view, not yours. For a business it means that all of its people, processes, strategies, leadership and technologies are aligned around its customers’ and employees’ point of view — not the company’s” (page 301).


And yes, getting to that point requires some serious transformation.

Getting into the empathy business

One bitter pill brands need to swallow involves shifting their focus from cutting costs to increasing revenue. Both are routes to growing profits, but the former often comes with customer attrition — and, more now than ever before, employee attrition. Other blind spots include prioritizing investors over customers, failing to invest in the technology that can deliver personalized experiences at scale, failure to leverage data effectively, static business plans and equally static management style.

A useful model to start thinking about what needs to change is Petouhoff and Bates’s “Force-Multiplier Flywheel.” Somewhat reminiscent of HubSpot’s flywheel model, proposed as an alternative to the traditional funnel, this version incorporates detailed advice on how to drive empathy. The four segments of the ever-spinning wheel are labeled Listen, Understand and Predict, Act and Learn. The inputs to Listen are a set of empathy-based business values — empathy-based corporate value, empathy-based culture, empathy-based leadership and empathy-based technology — and the output from the flywheel should be ongoing empathy-based disruption.

There’s a further model which, in turn, supports the way a brand can refine and develop the flywheel. This one is called the OODA Loop and it’s based on a strategy developed for training fighter pilots. OODA — observe, orient, decide and act. Most of those categories should be self-explanatory, but “orient” in this context refers to benchmarking your current customer and employee experiences against those of your competitors.

One increasingly obvious component of empathetic customer experiences is a sense of community, something B2C brands can build, of course, through social media channels, but also something of growing importance in a B2B space that is more and more about long-term customer relationships and helping to solve customers’ problems. “I’m working on a community here at Genesys called Beyond – it’s in its infancy right now,” said Petouhoff. “We have content for managers and agents, but my next act at Genesys is to build that online community with thought leadership and content, a place where people can come and learn.”

Read next: Why community could be the next big thing in marketing

The pandemic as context

Among the countless other things the pandemic has accelerated during the last two years is a sense that marketing needs to be empathetic, that it needs to speak — in an appropriate tone — to people’s needs and concerns; that it doesn’t exist just to push a lead down the funnel in the direction of a sale. In other words, transformational tops transactional, and even in the B2B space buyers are looking for relevant and empathetic engagement, not just a sales call.

Read next: What a long strange year in digital marketing


Bates and Petouhoff could not have foreseen this when they set out on their journey. “I was hired in October 2019, ” she said. “I met Tony and started talking to him about ‘I would really like to write a book that would change business forever.’” Bates asked her what that would look like. “Empathy — whether you’re in a relationship, whether you’re a friend, whether you’re a business — it creates trust and it creates loyalty. Now here comes 2020. Maybe we got lucky, I don’t know.”

About The Author

Kim Davis is the Editorial Director of MarTech. Born in London, but a New Yorker for over two decades, Kim started covering enterprise software ten years ago. His experience encompasses SaaS for the enterprise, digital- ad data-driven urban planning, and applications of SaaS, digital technology, and data in the marketing space. He first wrote about marketing technology as editor of Haymarket’s The Hub, a dedicated marketing tech website, which subsequently became a channel on the established direct marketing brand DMN. Kim joined DMN proper in 2016, as a senior editor, becoming Executive Editor, then Editor-in-Chief a position he held until January 2020. Prior to working in tech journalism, Kim was Associate Editor at a New York Times hyper-local news site, The Local: East Village, and has previously worked as an editor of an academic publication, and as a music journalist. He has written hundreds of New York restaurant reviews for a personal blog, and has been an occasional guest contributor to Eater.

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8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them



8 major email marketing mistakes and how to avoid them

As email marketers, we know we need to personalize the messages we send to subscribers and customers. I can’t think of a single statistic, case study or survey claiming an email program of one-to-everyone campaigns outperforms personalization.

Instead, you’ll find statistics like these:

  • 72% of customers will engage only with personalized messages (Wunderkind Audiences, formerly SmarterHQ)
  • 70% of consumers say that how well a company understands their individual needs affects their loyalty (Salesforce)
  • 71% of customers are frustrated by impersonal shopping experiences (Segment)

But what marketers often don’t understand, especially if they’re new to personalization, is that personalization is not an end in itself. Your objective is not to personalize your email campaigns and lifecycle messages. 

Rather, your objective is to enhance your customer’s experience with your brand. Personalization is one method that can do that, but it’s more than just another tactic. 

It is both an art and a science. The science is having the data and automations to create personalized, one-to-one messages at scale. The art is knowing when and how to use it.

We run into trouble when we think of personalization as the goal instead of the means to achieve a goal. In my work consulting with marketers for both business and consumer brands, I find this misunderstanding leads to eight major marketing mistakes – any of which can prevent you from realizing the immense benefits of personalization.

Mistake #1. Operating without an overall personalization strategy

I see this all too often: marketers find themselves overwhelmed by all the choices they face: 

  • Which personalization technologies to use
  • What to do with all the data they have
  • How to use their data and technology effectively
  • Whether their personalization efforts are paying off

This stems from jumping headfirst into personalization without thinking about how to use it to meet customers’ needs or help them solve problems. 

To avoid being overwhelmed with the mechanics of personalization, follow this three-step process:

  • Start small. If you aren’t using personalization now, don’t try to set up a full-fledged program right away. Instead, look for quick wins – small areas where you can use basic personalized data to begin creating one-to-one messages. That will get you into the swing of things quickly, without significant investment in time and money. Adding personal data to the body of an email is about as basic as you’ll get, but it can be a start.
  • Test each tactic. See whether that new tactic helps or hurts your work toward your goal. Does adding personal data to each message correlate with higher clicks to your landing page, more conversion or whatever success metric you have chosen?
  • Optimize and move on. Use your testing results to improve each tactic. Then, take what you learned to select and add another personalization tactic, such as adding a module of dynamic content to a broadcast (one to everyone) campaign. 

Mistake #2. Not using both overt and covert personalization

Up to now, you might have thought of in specific terms: personalized subject lines, data reflecting specific actions in the email copy, triggered messages that launch when a customer’s behavior matches your automation settings and other “overt” (or visible) personalization tactics.

“Covert” personalization also employs customer preference or behavior data but doesn’t draw attention to it. Instead of sending an abandoned-browse message that says “We noticed you were viewing this item on our website,” you could add a content module in your next campaign that features those browsed items as recommended purchases, without calling attention to their behavior. It’s a great tactic to use to avoid being seen as creepy.

Think back to my opening statement that personalization is both an art and a science. Here, the art of personalization is knowing when to use overt personalization – purchase and shipping confirmations come to mind – and when you want to take a more covert route. 

Mistake #3. Not maximizing lifecycle automations

Lifecycle automations such as onboarding/first-purchase programs, win-back and reactivation campaigns and other programs tied to the customer lifecycle are innately personalized. 

The copy will be highly personal and the timing spot-on because they are based on customer actions (opting in, purchases, downloads) or inactions (not opening emails, not buying for the first time or showing signs of lapsing after purchasing). 

Better yet, these emails launch automatically – you don’t have to create, schedule or send any of these emails because your marketing automation platform does that for you after you set it up. 

You squander these opportunities if you don’t do everything you can to understand your customer lifecycle and then create automated messaging that reaches out to your customers at these crucial points. This can cost you the customers you worked so hard to acquire, along with their revenue potential.

Mistake #4. Not testing effectively or for long-term gain

Testing helps you discover whether your personalization efforts are bearing fruit. But all too often, marketers test only individual elements of a specific campaign – subject lines, calls to action, images versus no images, personalization versus no personalization  – without looking at whether personalization enhances the customer experience in the long term.

How you measure success is a key part of this equation. The metrics you choose must line up with your objectives. That’s one reason I’ve warned marketers for years against relying on the open rate to measure campaign success. A 50% open rate might be fantastic, but if you didn’t make your goal for sales, revenue, downloads or other conversions, you can’t consider your campaign a success.


As the objective of personalizing is to enhance the customer journey, it makes sense then that customer lifetime value is a valid metric to measure success on.  To measure how effective your personalization use is, use customer lifetime value over a long time period – months, even years – and compare the results with those from a control group, which receives no personalization. Don’t ignore campaign-level results, but log them and view them over time.

(For more detailed information on testing mistakes and how to avoid them, see my MarTech column 7 Common Problems that Derail A/B/N Email Testing Success.)

Mistake #5. Over-segmenting your customer base

Segmentation is a valuable form of personalization, but it’s easy to go too far with it. If you send only highly segmented campaigns, you could be exclude – and end up losing because of failure to contact – many customers who don’t fit your segmentation criteria. That costs you customers, their potential revenue and the data they would have generated to help you better understand your customer base.

You can avoid this problem with a data-guided segmentation plan that you review and test frequently, a set of automated triggers to enhance the customer’s lifecycle and a well-thought-out program of default or catch-all campaigns for subscribers who don’t meet your other criteria. 

Mistake #6. Not including dynamic content in general email campaigns

We usually think of personalized email as messages in which all the content lines up with customer behavior or preference data, whether overt, as in an abandoned-cart message, or covert, where the content is subtly relevant.

That’s one highly sophisticated approach. It incorporates real-time messaging driven by artificial intelligence and complex integrations with your ecommerce or CRM platforms. But a simple dynamic content module can help you achieve a similar result. I call that “serendipity.”  

When you weave this dynamic content into your general message, it can be a pleasant surprise for your customers and make your relevant content stand out even more. 

Let’s say your company is a cruise line. Customer A opens your emails from time to time but hasn’t booked a cruise yet or browsed different tours on your website. Your next email campaign to this customer – and to everyone else on whom you have little or no data – promotes discounted trips to Hawaii, Fiji and the Mediterranean.


Customer B hasn’t booked a cruise either, but your data tells you she has browsed your Iceland-Denmark-Greenland cruise recently. With a dynamic content module, her email could show her your Hawaii and Mediterranean cruise offers – and a great price on a trip to Iceland, Denmark and Greenland. Fancy that! 

An email like this conveys the impression that your brand offers exactly what your customers are looking for (covert personalization) without the overt approach of an abandoned-browse email.

Mistake #7. Not using a personal tone in your copy

You can personalize your email copy without a single data point, simply by writing as if you were speaking to your customer face to face. Use a warm, human tone of voice, which ideally should reflect your brand voice. Write copy that sounds like a one-to-one conversation instead of a sales pitch. 

This is where my concept of “helpful marketing” comes into play. How does your brand help your customers achieve their own goals, solve their problems or make them understand you know them as people, not just data points?  

Mistake #8. Not personalizing the entire journey

Once again, this is a scenario in which you take a short-sighted view of personalization – “How do I add personalization to this email campaign?” – instead of looking at the long-term gain: “How can I use personalization to enhance my customer’s experience?”

Personalization doesn’t stop when your customer clicks on your email. It should continue on to your landing page and even be reflected in the website content your customer views. Remember, it’s all about enhancing your customer’s experience.

What happens when your customers click on a personalized offer? Does your landing page greet your customers by name? Show the items they clicked? Present copy that reflects their interests, their loyalty program standing or any other data that’s unique to them?  

Personalization is worth the effort

Yes, personalization takes both art and science into account. You need to handle it carefully so your messages come off as helpful and relevant without veering into creepy territory through data overreaches. But this strategic effort pays off when you can use the power of personalized email to reach out, connect with and retain customers – achieving your goal of enhancing the customer experience.


Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About The Author

Kath Pay is CEO at Holistic Email Marketing and the author of the award-winning Amazon #1 best-seller “Holistic Email Marketing: A practical philosophy to revolutionise your business and delight your customers.”


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