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Why you should love your customers

Interview with standardized patient Barbara Gamberini

This is in my view, an important episode because we're talking about something that's critical. We're talking about audience empathy or customer empathy.


That’s something that is critical to successful storytelling or content marketing or even marketing and business in general. Audience empathy. Now, I talked about that a bit in the last episode where we discussed the idea of being focused on providing content that is of value to your audience and meets their needs and the and provides the information and the content that they need or want.


And to do that, you have to not just know them, but you have to emphasize, empathize with them. You have to understand what is important to them and why the content that you're delivering to them is important.


So in other words, put yourself in their shoes, have a real vested interest in their success and their happiness. Empathy as a concept gets a fair amount of attention these days, but I'm not sure very many companies and organizations really understand it or take steps, the necessary steps to truly empathize with their audiences, their customers. The people that they're trying to reach.


So to talk about what true empathy is, I was fortunate enough to meet someone who embodies the concept in a way that I think is unmatched. She's a true storyteller, whether she knows it or not. To do her job well, she must empathize with her audience in a very, very strong way and at the same time she her audience to have empathy for their audiences later on.


Barbara Gamberini: Hi, my name is Barbara Gamberini. I live in North Carolina and Winston Salem and I am a standardized patient.


Now in case you missed that, Barbara said that she is a standardized patient. You might be wondering what is that? So we'll let Barbara explain a little bit further what a standardized patient does.


Barbara: Standardized patient does various things. We work with medical students, we work with physicians assistants. We work with anesthesiology students as well as residents, mostly the students. And what we do is we train the students on and developing, practicing and pretty much enhancing their medical interview skills as well as communication skills and their physical exam skills.


So to boil it down, Barbara is trained to exhibit symptoms of a disease or an injury or some other afflictions so that medical and PA students can practice interviewing patients and practice their bedside manner and patient empathy.


This is something that's growing in importance in the medical education field. Every patient, every person has a story in addition to whatever physical symptoms that they might be dealing with. Their condition might not always be obvious. So medical students have to be trained to talk with patients, to get their stories and to empathize with them so that they can find out what's really going on and the best way to do that is through standardized patients. Standardized patients in a lot of ways are like an actor. They play a role, a character, and they help the medical student who is their audience.


Barbara: What we do is we portray these characters in these cases as well as we can be and standardized along all of the standardized patients that are trained. To help these students in their interview skills.


They interview us from history to what we're feeling, what our family background is, and they also hopefully show compassion there. Hopefully they show empathy to their patients because that is what the real world is all about. Their listening skills are extremely important to develop during these simulated exams.


Being a standardized patient isn't as simple as it sounds. You don't just go into an exam room and pretend to have the sniffles or some sort of pain in your arm or some other symptoms that you might've been assigned to.


Barbara and her colleagues are storytellers of the highest order and the characters that they play are very deep and detailed beyond just the symptoms of the disease or injury that they might have.


Barbara: I'll give you an example of a, a scenario that I recently did. This patient, this woman that was in her fifties has been a very heavy smoker, drinks quite a bit, but her family physician has encouraged her to start walking some and she has experienced very bad short of shortness of breath.


This makes this patient extremely anxious and nervous. So she in turn gives her physician a call and makes this appointment because she's very nervous and why she can't breathe, why she is experiencing this wheezing sound in her chest that she's never heard before and she's kind of freaking out.


I become that patient. I have certain statements that I have to, I must say I am given my family background. I'm giving the specifics on how I've been feeling and my data and my history and the student in turn is trained hopefully to ask me the proper questions to get all of my story and that's what's really important in this whole encounter is to get my story.


If the student does not ask me open ended questions and asked me to explain what I'm talking about as opposed to a yes or no question. They won't get really how I'm feeling, not just physically but emotionally.


Barbara takes her job as a standardized patient very, very seriously. She approaches every character and every role that she's assigned, like a serious actor might. She prepares meticulously.


Barbara: I am very critical and I tend to ask a lot of questions that need to be asked in between the lines because I never want to be unprepared for any question that the student might ask. That's not on the prepared script, so what I do is I read it very thoroughly. Once, twice, three times. I highlight certain, the points that I n I and I marked down any questions that I might have.


When Barbara gets a script and she's assigned a role, she spends literally weeks preparing in very, very detailed manner and then later on prior to the event to show time, if you will, she goes through a training process at the medical schools so that the professors can explain things to them so that they're clear on the role that she's playing.


And then so she can also ask questions and really get to the bottom of who her character is. So when the time comes for her to get into character, to play the role, she is ready.


Barbara: I go over it and I tell him while I'm sleeping, I bring it to the gym and I study it and I go over the whole scenario, what could possibly be asked, what my asset would be and I guess I'd become that person.


And then when I walk into the hospital and go into the actual exam room waiting for the student to enter the room, I become that person. And then it's all hands on deck and I am Jane Doe for that 15 to 30 minutes.


So being a standardized patient is not necessarily an easy job as you can hear it. There's a lot of work and preparation that goes into it, but it also can be quite exhausting and even stressful.


According to Barbara, she used an example of a recent role that she played that was particularly difficult to illustrate this point.


Barbara: Say I'm playing a person that has been abused by their spouse or their loved one or their partner and has been keeping it very secretive all for many, many months. And um, finally decides that this has to end. So they end up calling their health professional, the health care professional to get some guidance and some help.


That's not a fun role to play. I mean it's not pleasant because you become this person and the whole day of play of portraying this role of a person that has been abused and taken advantage of physically or, or, um, mentally has over the, over during the day. You can play it eight, 10 or 12 times.


And you have to be that person, you have to embody that, that personality and what that person actually has gone through. And by the end of the day, it is exhausting mentally and physically exhausting because it's hard to remove yourself from that, that role.


It takes hours for me personally to get myself refreshed and back to Barbara who, what my normal person is and because I have been portraying this, this incredibly emotionally distressed woman that day.


Despite the difficulty and the stress that can be part of the job, Barbara has been a standardized patient for 25 years. She used to be a teacher and she has always enjoyed helping students. So when she got the chance to become a standardized patient and she learned what it was really all about, she knew that it was meant to be for her.


Barbara: I fell in love with being in this role. I fell in love with working with the and helping them and giving them feedback on what they could improve on, what they did wonderfully and it became such a joy and for me as well as and responsibility for me because I felt such a satisfaction knowing that I was helping these students.


Barbara doesn't just love what she does, but she also feels a sense of responsibility. A big part of her job is not just to play the part, but to sometimes provide feedback or at least to allow the professors who are teaching the students to provide the feedback to them.


That's really where the students can learn the bedside manner and the interviewing skills and the patient empathy. That's so important and that's what Barbara really enjoys the most. She enjoys helping the students learn and seeing them grow in their abilities


Barbara: That is such an incredible learning experience. And see their progress from their first year when they're green and they're nervous and they're scared. Just seeing how they blossom and how they grow and they become wonderful listeners, wonderful, compassionate, empathetic health care professionals.


In Barbara's work as a standardized patient, empathy for her audience – in this case, medical students – is critical. They rely on her to understand their positions and to tell them her stories.


Now, they might be fictional stories in this case, but there's still stories and that's what helps them learn and grow and develop empathy of their own. And in the process, the students build their own empathetic muscles so that they can become better doctors, PAs, and healthcare professionals, so that can, so that they can treat the patient, not just the disease.


So to Barbara, being a standardized patient is more than just a job. It's a responsibility that she takes very, very seriously.


Barbara: I feel a responsibility and the sense of excellence in terms of how to bring my role to them. So they will learn for later on in there in the real world because that's really what it's all about.


I know it's a fake format when I am walking in there, but most of these students really feel that this is an actual situation.


Barbara hopes that by doing what she does, by empathizing with her audience, the students, and giving them what they need from her, through her stories, through the stories that she is assigned to tell them that she will play a small role in their developing into great doctors and being successful providers in the community.


Barbara: The big part of my training is the doctor patient relationship. And when I give them feedback is that's, that's the feedback that I am offering them is that's my role. If in my training and in my practicing at home, in my sleep, at the gym, with my family members, if I can portray that to them or for that little piece of knowing that everybody deserves an ear and a little smile and a little compassion, that's, that's all worthwhile for me.


Barbara does this job because it's important to her and that she knows she can provide something in the form of her storytelling that they can use. She sees it as a responsibility more than just a job and she does it because she believes in the students. She even loves them.


She wants to see them succeed so that they can make her community and the world a better place.


Barbara: I bump into them all the time in, in private health care facilities all the way to the hospital and they are, they're flourishing there. They have become excellent for healthcare professionals and I'm hoping that some of my advice that I gave them or one of my colleagues’ advice and help has helped them get to where they are now.


Empathy for your customers and your audience is an important part of storytelling, marketing and even just business in general, but few organizations really take it as seriously as Barbara does.


To be fair, her level of empathy for her audience is going to be difficult to match for just about anybody, myself included. But there are several things that I think all of us can learn from her.


One of them is kind of subtle and Barbara hinted at it a few minutes ago in one of her quotes. She said that she hopes to make an impact on the students through her small part of the educational process.


She knows the context of her stories and her storytelling. She knows that she's not the single-most important part of a student's medical education and she doesn't pretend to be, but she knows her role. She plays her part and she plays it well.


The other part of her empathy is that she does it to help students accomplish great things. She wants them to be great doctors and medical providers and she has this attitude of service so that they can do just that.


And finally, by having empathy for her audience, Barbara is motivated, really motivated and able to do a good job. And how well she tells her stories.


As you heard from her preparation. She takes it really, really seriously. And I think that's only natural when you have a vested interest. When you want your customers to succeed, when you want your audience to succeed and not just buy stuff from you, you're going to work hard to tell better stories.


And I think those are all things that we can all learn from. You have to be invested in what your audience, what your customers are trying to accomplish to make the world a better place in their own ways.


And you have to know how you fit into those worlds. Sometimes you as the company are not at the center of their world, but you're a tool to help them do what they want to do and accomplish what they want to accomplish.


And then you also have to know what they need from you to accomplish those goals. And that's not only your products and services, but the information, the knowledge and the expertise that you possess.


What it boils down to is if you want to be trusted by your customers, your audiences, if you want them to receive and understand the messages and the stories that you're telling them, if you want them to take the action that you want them to take, you have to have true empathy for them.


Another way to put it might be is if you want your customers to love you, you have to love them first. And I do mean love them. And that's what customer empathy is really all about.

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