The word “empathy” can sound a bit touchy-feely when you’re talking about business. But in a world where many products and services are increasingly commoditized, the customer insights you can gain from empathy are highly valuable, and the way prospects experience your brand or organization isn’t something you can afford to ignore.
I’m not suggesting that you start hugging your customers or sending them “Thinking of you” notes. (It’s probably helpful, but perhaps wait until more peer-reviewed research has been done?). Empathy in a business innovation context is more than knowing how customers felt about something that already happened. It’s about going beyond customer satisfaction surveys and trying to understand what they really want and need — even, and especially, when they themselves don’t know what they want or need. It’s a willingness to listen to what they’re saying, find the meaning in what they say and why they say it, and then respond in a valuable way.
Getting closer to your customers with empathy isn’t just a nice thing to do if you have time or want to feel good about yourself. It’s an essential business practice that boosts profits, builds loyalty, and drives innovation in several key ways.
So how can you encourage the use of empathy in your own organization? Here are four ways your team can step in to your customers’ shoes.
1. Develop empathy-building skills in your employees
Encourage your employees to see interactions from your customer’s perspective. What is the customer experience like? Are there any strong emotions involved?
If you’re not sure what type of experience your customers are having, encourage your employees to ask them! Their anecdotes and stories will give you powerful insights. Your top salespeople and front-line staff might know a few things too.
To make this successful, it helps to train your employees in the art of asking non-leading, open-ended questions. Give them opportunities to practice releasing their own assumptions about the customer experience — to go from “knowing with certainty” to being open to discovering new things about your customers’ experience. If they’re prepared to follow customers where they take them, they’re more likely to uncover unexpected needs and solution ideas that could make or break your next product or service.
Break out of the habit of relying on clinical focus groups and create opportunities for your staff to spend time with customers one-on-one in more conversational settings like in-depth interviews. Training your staff in human-centered methods like design thinking can also help develop and promote an empathy-first mindset.
2. Get in context and embrace your inner Jane Goodall
Results can easily be skewed when customers are out of the context where they use your product or service. For example, strong personalities can dominate in focus groups and memories of an experience can be notoriously inaccurate in online surveys. People-pleasing participants may also try to tell you what they think you want to hear.
Contextual inquiry, or situations where you learn about the consumer in their own environment a la “field research,” offers much more actionable data. Contextual inquiry allows customers to show, rather than tell you how they use your offering. You’ll be able to observe them in their natural habitat and eliminate the bias of selective memory. If you want to change the way customers wash clothes, observe or talk to them while they’re doing laundry. In-person experiences are usually preferable, but remote research done via videoconferencing platforms or filmed observations can also be illuminating.
This approach was very successful for a restaurant client I worked with. They wanted to know why customers weren’t using their coffee lounge area to do work. The key to the puzzle was “Sharon,” a regular diner who essentially used the main restaurant as her office. She ate three meals a day there and brought her family for dinner at the end of the day. On paper, she seemed like the ideal repeat customer, but she always sat in the main restaurant. The restaurant valued her loyalty, but could be turning her table over more than three times a day if she worked in the coffee lounge instead.
When I interviewed Sharon at her regular table, she had strong opinions about the coffee lounge. “Look at that electrical cord over there,” she said, pointing. “It’s dirty, it’s frayed….that’s a tort waiting to happen!” That made us understand Sharon cared about safety — something we never would have learned if we’d just asked her to fill out a customer satisfaction survey. If she’d been given a survey, all we might have learned was that Sharon “Strongly disliked” the coffee lounge. But speaking to Sharon live and in-context was the key to getting her unvarnished opinions about her experience. It helped us understand the deeper “whys” behind her choices, and get on the path to actionable solutions.
3. Dig deeper with improv
This is no joke. Basic improv activities encourage the person doing the activity to be raw, uncensored, and more authentic than they might otherwise feel free to be. Wouldn’t you like your customers to be those things when they are telling you what they think about your product, service, or experience? Kicking off a customer research forum like a focus group or in-depth interview with some simple improv activities can be a valuable option to set the right tone. It cognitively primes the customer for what you want to happen next (“be totally honest”) and gets them comfortable in that way of thinking and behaving.
In an improvised scenario, participants are more forthcoming, unfiltered, and honest about what they really want and value. Spur-of-the-moment reactions to improvised situations (sometimes called “bodystorming” or “service storming” in design thinking) can tell you a lot about their experiences, core attitudes, and associations. Let’s say you’re the TSA trying to improve the airport security screening experience. You could have research subjects do an improvised scene in which they are interacting with airport security. What they bring up in the moment without having time to think tells volumes about what matters most to them. These insights can highlight opportunity areas for re-design. (Pssst, TSA! Cocktail bars and pedicure stations come up a LOT in these scenarios!)
4. Use stimuli to create the right mindset
Offering stimuli like visuals, audio, or simulated experiences are another great way to draw customers’ true feelings out. Instead of a dry question and answer session or focus group, stimuli create opportunities for greater engagement. Like improvised “body storming,” thoughtfully crafted stimuli can elicit incredible insights from participants. It encourages them to provide responses and reactions with greater depth than checking the “Somewhat like” choice on a survey.
These techniques are particularly useful when something can’t be tested in the field yet. For example, you might use a stimuli approach when you’re developing new products or exploring new solutions to complex problems. At this stage, you are focused on exploration and discovery instead of usability or market testing. Stimuli can be as simple as card sorts used during an in-depth interview or improvised scenarios; or as materials-intensive as immersive, to-scale prototypes of built experiences.
Why bother with empathy?
Take off your Google Glass to read this. Oh wait…you aren’t wearing Google Glass because pretty much no one is. It was hailed as a consumer product that would change the way we look at and engage with the world. But the designers didn’t realize consumers would have privacy concerns, and the product bombed within three years. Although Google Glass has since found new life as a B2B product, just imagine how much trouble and money could have been saved if the design team had listened to and deeply understood their customers’ needs and behaviors in the first place, rather than assuming their shiny new tech would carry the day on its own.
Empathy is an especially good tool for business innovation. Customers who feel heard and understood will give you insights that are more truthful, guiding you to innovative ideas that are more useful and marketable.
This is an invaluable benefit when you’re conducting “what if” research or looking for new ways to meet customer needs. You may find out that it’s time to create something new that will give you an edge in your market. Or you may discover that a few small tweaks could allow you to meet new needs and dramatically expand your influence. Even small efforts to make connections with your customers can help you uncover customer insights and opportunities you haven’t thought of yet.