Don’t Know Your Customers Too Well

Walking a mile in your customers’ shoes may not be such a good idea after all.

This thought struck me twice recently: after reading about new research on customer empathy, and again when speaking with Nutrisystem EVP and CMO Keira Krausz.

Krausz surprised me with a heartfelt discussion about the way she personally relates to her company’s brand and its weight-loss products and services. Both of her parents have battled weight issues for much of their lives; her father has relatively severe complications from Type 2 Diabetes.

“Genetically speaking, I was not destined to be a Skinny Minnie,” Krausz said. “I relate on a very personal basis to our customers.” She tried to downplay that emotional connection a bit by pointing out that a lot of marketing executives can point to a personal connection with their company’s offerings and its customers. But, really, not every CMO can do that. I’m not buying it if the CMO of an automotive parts vendor says the same thing—or even if the marketing chief of a CPG company pledges her passion for her company’s cereal. (Call me a skeptic, but I bet she’d fall for a different cereal love if she worked for a rival.)

Krausz has a deeply personal and emotional connection to the very same challenges that her customers grapple with every day. Which is why I was impressed when she added: “Now, I’m not going to say that I assume I understand the mind of the customer all the time. We are a heavily research- and testing-based company…”

She’s certainly onto something about customer empathy that other marketing executives ought to emulate. Namely, that too much customer empathy may cause marketers to disregard objective data.

Research that Imperial College’s Johannes Hattula and fellow researchers Walter Herzog, Darren Dahl, and Sven Reinecke have conducted examined how empathy influenced marketers’ personal preferences for a selected product or service. “The more empathetic managers were, the more ‘egocentric’ they became; that is, the more likely they were to say that the customers’ preferences were the same as their own,” writes Scott Berinato, who authored Harvard Business Review article about the research.

The researchers kindled feelings of empathy in marketing managers by describing customers and asking the subjects to imagine those customers’ thoughts and reactions. The marketing managers were then presented with objective market research to apply to “test” marketing initiatives, including selecting the features customers would want in a new car, designing a luxury-watch campaign, and pricing a sandwich. The more empathetic marketers were, according to a survey, the less likely they were to use the objective market data in their decision-making.

This tendency to rely too much on empathy-driven instincts and too little on objective research is present regardless of age and experience, the research shows. There’s a way to guard against this tendency, according to the research: Marketers who were reminded that this bias is common were more likely to avoid the tendency.

A candid organizational culture also can help guard against misguided empathy—just ask Krausz. Recently, she expressed an opinion about the price of a Nutrisystem product to one of her executive colleagues. “I said something about the price like, ‘Oh, I wouldn’t really look at that,’” she recalls. “And our CFO laughed and then said, ‘Do you think your price sensitivity might be different than that of our typical customer?’ We get in each other’s face like that when we need to.”

It’s good that they do. “I think one of the great dangers of being a marketer is thinking that you know the customer when you don’t,” Krausz adds. “You often do know the customer, but you always better check your assumptions.” Objective research confirms her point.


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