Try the "five whys" exercise to build your empathy muscle

    Guest post by Melanie Deardorff

    Being a writer can mean we're tempted to include multisyllabic words or long sentences in our copy, showing our mad skills but losing readers.

    If you're a designer, you might craft a brochure that takes white space a bit too far, unintentionally making the piece coldly minimal.

    As creative professionals, we can easily forget there's a decision-maker — correction: make that a person — who needs to respond to our words and designs, feeling something and taking action. If we forget to keep that "audience of one" front and center, only focused on showing our creative prowess, our efforts are wasted.

    Here's another way we waste everyone's time: We don't show enough empathy when we talk with prospects and consult with clients.

    Benefits of being an empathetic creative

    I've worked in marketing/communications for most of my adult life. And though I consider myself a perpetual student, eagerly soaking up new knowledge, I want people to see that I already know my stuff!

    Being empathetic is second nature for me. My default mode is to think about another person's wants, needs, opinions and experiences. (I talk about how this trait benefits my work as a marketing consultant and writer in Ilise Benun's Marketing Mentor Podcast/ Episode #446. Listen here now.)

    My empathetic bent makes me a better marketer and writer. It helps me win and retain clients and improves the output of what I create for my clients' end-customers.

    My empathy mode powers on when I talk with a prospect or new client. And when I recommend the best marketing strategy to deploy and the specific tactics to use, empathy shapes my advice.

    Questions to unlock the empath in you

    I know from listening in on other creative pros when they talk about their clients, they nail questions like these:

    1. What do you sell?
    2. Who is your target audience?
    3. Who are your competitors?
    4. Where do you sell your product (or service)?
    5. Is your business on social media?

    It's the deeper questions that can get overlooked. If you take my five questions to the next level, digging deeper and asking follow-on questions, that's where you learn so much more.

    1. What's the hardest product for you to sell? Why is that so? Did you ever sell it in the past?
    2. Who do you not want to attract as a customer? What's the downside of them being interested in your product? Is there any plus side you can think of?
    3. What do your top competitors offer that you don't? Why don't you sell that product? Have you ever asked your customers if they'd buy it from you if you did offer it?
    4. What's one untapped sales channel for you? Why haven't you sold your products there before? Do many of your top competitors use that channel?
    5. Do you get any leads/sales from being on social media? How many do you get in a typical month? What volume of leads/sales do you believe is realistic — and what do you base this on?

    Get the picture? It would be easy (and I've done it!) to ask a new client only the basic questions to move quickly through the intake process. Sloooow the process down. (That's something Ilise says is beneficial in lots of situations.) Take your time and be primed to ask deeper questions. You can be spontaneous and ask what comes to mind or refer to questions you wrote out in advance from your prep work.

    Ever heard of the five whys?

    The five whys is a questioning process created by Sakichi Toyoda, the founder of Toyota. Toyoda believed that by digging deep into a problem or solution, you unlock meaningful insights.

    Toyoda was said to describe the five whys in this way:

    "By repeating why five times, the nature of the problem as well as its solution becomes clear."

    I found the five whys to be helpful in my personal life and at work. When I'm in an unexplained funk or worried about a conversation with a family member, I use the five whys to walk me through my thought processes.

    Five whys comes into play at the start of a new relationship with a client and also pays dividends down the road. Clients appreciate my perpetual curiosity. I get smarter about their business. (This feeds my love of learning!) The outcome is that I do better work by keeping my clients and their product/service buyers' needs in mind when I do my Melanie the (empathetic) Marketer work for them.

    Five whys in action

    Here's how I plan to use the five whys technique for an article interview I have coming up. It'll be with a consultant at my long-time client, a data management consulting firm.

    On an internal call I joined last month, the consultant said something about how, just because a company has metadata*, it doesn't mean they should capture it in their data catalog. (A data catalog can be an Excel file or, better yet, software a company uses to organize its data.)

    The "just because you can doesn't mean you have to" angle piqued my interest in writing an article about metadata for my client's blog.

    As I prepare to interview the subject matter expert next week, I'll use five whys at the start of our call. I already know the consultant's answer to question #1 because of her remarks in the internal meeting. And because I know a little about metadata, below I'm guessing at the follow-up questions I'd ask — to show you how the five whys works.

    Sidenote: It's OK to ask why, how and what questions. (There's a whole school of thought on why/how/what if you want to go down a Google rabbit hole.) The idea is to ask more probing questions and not worry about the question word that prefaces them. 
    1. So, Catherine, I heard you say on the internal call that just because a client can capture metadata in their data catalog, it doesn't mean they should. Why do you say that?
    2. (After she answers.) I see. So, certain metadata might only be valuable to a small, specific department and not need to go in the catalog everyone in a company uses. OK. Then, how does a company prioritize the data to capture in their catalog?
    3. That makes sense. What criteria did the catalog owner use to decide which metadata is high-priority?
    4. Interesting! What's an example where a company captured too much metadata, and what problems did it cause for them?
    5. I see. So, can metadata be added later if the business decides it's now a high priority? And how would it let its data catalog users know about this change?

    Did you catch how my questions focused on not just the technology angle of metadata but people and processes, too?

    I'll never know as much as the consultant does about metadata. But I need to write a 1,500-ish-word blog article that's detailed enough to showcase my client's consulting expertise while, at the same time, making the topic easy to understand. The target audience for this piece is a businessperson who is considering what to include in their data catalog or wants best practices on how to effectively manage their metadata.

    Questions make us sound smart, not dumb or inexperienced

    If you're like me and you've been in marketing or design for years, asking deeper questions or using the five whys technique may feel intrusive or make it seem you haven't been paying attention to their business.

    Or if you're a new creative pro, running your own business, you may think too many questions makes you sound like a newbie, outing you for not being in business for long.

    Don't go there, friend. Your clients will respond positively to your curiosity and interest in what they do. And if one of them does question why you don't know XYZ about their business/industry/product, respond with one of these answers:

    I don't want to miss the opportunity to learn more about your typical customer (or your industry.)
    When it comes to being able to nail the copy I write (or the logo I'll design), I find there aren't any dumb questions.
    We've worked together a long time, for sure. But I won't ever assume I know everything about your business.
    It's been a while since we've talked in depth about your customers (or products). I want to make sure what I learned last year is still relevant.

    My guess is you'll never need to use one of these answers. Your prospect or client won't ask why you're digging deeper. They'll respect you and your consulting expertise, feel flattered by your interest and enjoy talking about something they know so well.

    Empathy is good for your brain (and your brand)

    Do you feel inspired to try the five whys on an upcoming call with a prospect or client? Are you interested in growing your empath skills? I hope so! And if you don’t like the word empathy, reframe it and tell yourself you'll be a better "business detective" or investigator going forward.

    When we take the time to show we care about our clients' businesses and their customers, it will take the next strategic marketing plan we put together or the tactical work we execute to a new level of excellence. And we should be known for that type of work.


    *If you're new to the data management industry like I was in March 2016 when I first met my client, thinking about metadata could blow your mind. But here goes: It's the data about data — the data's structure, the information it contains, how the data is used in the business, etc.