This is part one of a two-part series; part two will be published in next Wednesday’s Inner Circle, and will include tips six through 10. 

“Customer pain is the ultimate renewable resource,” Jon Burgstone writes in “Breakthrough Entrepreneurship.” In this fast-paced world of change and flux, one thing remains certain: the subject of customer pain points is an evergreen topic for all brand leaders, merchants and creative strategists. Those of us who make it our work to diagnosis these pain points and offer customers compelling solutions to solve these problems in amazingly useful ways will win their hearts, minds and wallets. The gift these customers give us in return is gratitude via increased sales, loyalty, high Net Promoter scores and evangelism.

A Mayo Clinic study years ago interviewed patients for their perspectives on what makes an ideal doctor. Quoting from WebMd, these were the seven traits listed by the patients, along with the patients’ definitions of those traits:

  • Confident: “The doctor’s confidence gives me confidence.”
  • Empathetic: “The doctor tries to understand what I’m feeling and experiencing, physically and emotionally, and communicates that understanding to me.”
  • Humane: “The doctor is caring, compassionate and kind.”
  • Personal: “The doctor is interested in me more than just as a patient, interacts with me, and remembers me as an individual.”
  • Forthright: “The doctor tells me what I need to know in plain language and in a forthright manner.”
  • Respectful: “The doctor takes my input seriously and works with me.”
  • Thorough: “The doctor is conscientious and persistent.”

I think it’s fair to say that these seven traits can also be applied to the branding profession. In order to become the first brand customers turn to in order to accomplish their goals (whether it’s a small problem they’re solving like what to do for dinner or what type of skis to use to improve their performance on the slopes this season, or a larger issue like where to invest retirement dollars or where to create vacation memories or what car to buy for their young adult), brand leaders must become good physicians of their customers’ pain points. Like the very best medical practitioners, we must practice good listening, attentive and empathetic understanding, respectful and honest communication, and, certainly, be sure we “do no harm.”

How can we jump-start this process of leveraging our customers’ pain points in order to realize the gains I’ve mentioned? What follows is the first five points in my 10-step plan to get you started. The next five points will run in the Inner Circle next week:

1. Prepare for deep work. Before we can tackle this topic with the care it deserves and think deeply, we must extract ourselves from our ever-present noisy environments. Pain point processing — diagnosing, evaluating, pondering — needs quality time and space. It cannot be rushed. I resonate with Georgetown professor Cal Newport’s latest research in his book “Deep Work“: “The ability to perform deep work is becoming exceedingly rare at exactly the same time it’s becoming increasingly valuable in our economy. As a consequence, the few who cultivate this skill, and then make it the core of their working life, will thrive.”

Therefore, prepare … clear the decks, turn away from the continual commotion and give your personal attention to the humanity of your customers. They’re not simply target audiences, customer segments, eyeballs, wallets and whatever other monetary-inspired names they’re often referred to in your particular industry (hospitals refer to them as “beds,” schools refer to them as “full pays” — you see what I mean!). They’re human beings. I think it’s best to name and treat your customers as friends. This has always been my practice, and the practice I share with my clients. And friends do, indeed, make the very best brand ambassadors!

Step one: How can you reduce the noise? How can you begin to treat your customers as friends?

2. Know pain: Walk in their wellies. I love that American Girls’ latest collection of dolls is called WellieWishers. These dolls are wearing the adorable rubber Wellington boots shortened by the Brits to the term “Wellies.” Let’s use this metaphor to give new meaning to the need for brand leaders to get up from behind their desks and out of their endless meetings and “walk a mile in their customers’ shoes.” It’s a must do. Be with your customers. Practice face time. Go on your category’s version of an anthropological dig: look in their kitchens, their closets, their SUVS, their backpacks. Sit with them and have real conversations. What are you observing, noticing and hearing? What’s new?

Productivity expert Paul Minors writes: “Practice hearing what people are saying. Do your best to get inside their minds.”

Step two: How can you be more empathetic?

3. Learn adventurously and listen empathetically. Brands like Starbucks, Target, Whole Foods, Campbell’s and Wal-Mart haven’t been afraid to ask fierce questions of their customers. Simple, pointed questions like: What more can we do for you? Why do you do ___(cook/clean/ski/garden) with our product? Why did you leave? What would get you back into our stores? What do you love about our competitors’ offering? What would get you to try another one of our products? I call this “The Power of the Ask.” We won’t be able to capitalize on our customers’ pain points if we don’t have the brand bravery to have forthright chats with our customers. Scientist Stephen Jay Gould reminds us: “The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best — and therefore never scrutinize or question.”

Step three: What 10 questions can you ask your customers?

4. Conduct a “TalkAbout.” After deep reflection and time spent with your customers listening empathetically and learning adventurously from them, it’s time for a multidisciplinary TalkAbout — my term for an important two-part brand-strengthening conversation involving key leaders from throughout the company.

Bring your internal brand ambassadors together from marketing, merchandising, creative, operations, customer care, finance, etc. Get in a room together and share openly all these nuanced learnings. (Note: It’s always helpful to have an outside facilitator navigate these discussions.) As brand “physicians,” which of the new pain points that you learned of from your customers are you most concerned about? Ready to do something about? Must do something about? What old pain points still need attending? Do you know what matters the most to your customers? How do your present day solutions solve these issues?

Step four: What makes your brand amazingly useful to your customers?

5. Verbify your brand … then unify and simplify. If you recall your English lesson from years gone by, you cannot have a complete sentence without a verb. Verbs are where the action is. I feel that same way about brands. Verbs help clarify what your brand is meant to do. As a creative branding and merchandising strategist, I abide by Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s profound axiom: “A product has a job to do for your customer.” Brand equity is built one amazingly useful product, service or experience after another. I advocate using one brand verb as your narrative platform. My process of “verbifying” your brand is part two of the TalkAbout discussion I mentioned earlier. Once you land on this solution-oriented verb to your customers’ pain points, it becomes the unifying storytelling method that will differentiate your brand from others in your noisy and crowded arena. It has the power to become the simple brand lens you use to filter all your brand actions and initiatives — large or small.

Step five: What’s your brand verb?

Andrea Syverson is the founder and president of creative branding and merchandising consultancy IER Partners. Andrea has more than 20 years of providing clients with innovative approaches to branding, product development and creative messaging. She’s the author of two books about brand building and creating customer-centric products that enhance brands: ThinkAbout: 77 Creative Prompts for Innovators, and BrandAbout: A Seriously Playful Approach for Passionate Brand-Builders and Merchants.