3 marketing lessons from euthanasia

by Jake Yarbrough on July 28, 2009

We had to put our 13-1/2-year-old dog to sleep in the early morning hours last Tuesday.

Standing alone in the waiting room of a 24-hour animal hospital, with a half-cup of untouched coffee, and the tinny echo of Ron Popeil as he hocked knives from the plasma screen, I began to consider a lot of things. And, without trying to sound crass or macabre about it, the experience surrounding this decision highlighted some important lessons for businesses and marketers to understand when trying to connect with customers.

1. Everyone has a back-story.
For nearly six months, Paco had suffered with a mysterious condition. Thousands of dollars and countless consultations, second opinions and research only brought us more questions instead of answers.

What we did know was that this mutt — the vivacious puppy we adopted after the original owners couldn’t afford his Parvo treatment and abandoned him at the clinic more than 13 years ago — couldn’t stop panting. Twenty-four hours a day, he sounded as if he had just run a marathon. Even in his sleep, he was breathing and snoring so heavily he couldn’t have possibly been resting.

A veterinarian was the one who gave Paco a second chance, by paying for his original Parvo treatment and finding a home for him with our family. Our current veterinarian was very thorough but simply could not pinpoint the root of the problem. A variety of confounding symptoms, but no clear-cut disease. We thought it might be a thyroid issue. Or even Cushing’s disease.

We even took Paco and his 3-inch-thick file to an internal medicine specialist. Same problem. No real answers.

After a succession of seizures at 3:00 last Tuesday morning and the resulting complete loss of bodily control, we called our regular veterinarian and the answering service told us to go to Metro West Emergency Veterinary Clinic — their partner for this kind of situation.

I drove down the empty Interstate with him in the passenger seat and conferred with the doctor on staff when I arrived. There really wasn’t much we could do at this point. My wife and I had to make the excruciatingly difficult choice to end his suffering. To bring him peace.

I was there for his last breath. His final pant as it were.

Thanks for indulging me. I needed to get all this off my chest. Now, on to business.

The Metro West clinic staff was terrific and empathetic. Their synchronized grace helped me through a very challenging time. And I believe that fluidity stemmed from the fact that they intuitively understood I had a slide show of memories flying through my head in that moment. A back-story that meant a lot to me and my young family.

While you may not be selling an experience with the same emotional depth attached to it, your customers are bringing some form of bias with them. They are subconsciously comparing your interaction to their collective experiences on this planet.

And it’s not just service businesses who should understand the power of the back-story. The relationships we have with products or even appliances are just as dependent on the place our customers are at the moment of truth.

How well can you empathize with what your customers are going through and authentically connect to this web of context? How can you improve this?

2. Details matter.
From ensuring that my paperwork was complete prior to conducting the procedure (so I could leave without delay), to giving me a personalized remembrance of our dog (his final paw print in clay), this clinic considered every last detail. And, every detail was finely tuned to the situation.

The back-story and the transaction should greatly impact the tone and manner in which you speak to customers. The founder of a very successful car dealership in this region, Carl Sewell, built a thriving brand and lifelong customers by paying excruciating attention to detail.

Are you and your team situationally aware? What tools do you use to fine-tune the details of your processes?

3. The emotional can turn physical.
By receiving Paco’s paw print in clay, I watched the intense, yet intangible emotion over losing a loved family member transform into a physical artifact on which my wife, kids and I can project our fond memories.

That the emotional can become tangible is nothing new. It’s happened since the first painter picked up the first brush. However, the way we use that metamorphosis to develop deeper relationships with our customers can be powerful, profound and profitable.

Apple took the feelings we have with our music and created a physical connection through the design of the iPod. The Lance Armstrong Foundation wrapped pride and strength around our wrists in yellow silicone.

Where are you able to bring the emotions your customers have into the physical realm?

These are just a few
The process of losing a pet helped me gain some perspective. I hope you will forgive my sharing this story, but it seemed to contain a lot of important reminders for me about the way we connect companies to people.

Have I missed the boat here? Are you offended? Are there other lessons you would extract from this situation?

  • First, please accept my heartfelt condolences on losing Paco.

    I watched as our Yellow Lab Barley was euthanized nine years ago, and I'm still not over it. My husband and I held Barley to the very end, our eyes locking gazes with her, soothing her, whispering to her. When she was gone, she was still looking at us, still trusting us. We'll never forget it.

    So yes, your story has connected with me. It's prompted a response. But somehow, in your touching and elegantly written tribute to Paco, I don't want to find a marketing lesson that teaches me how customer relationships can be powerful, profound and profitable. I admire the authenticity of your story, though, as well as your courage for putting it out there and welcoming all responses.

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