Empathy: Is Your Company Wired to Care?

Empathy:   Is Your Company Wired to Care?

In my first blog on empathy, I talked about the business case for empathy.  As stated by Chip Conley, “ The more an organization can understand and empathize with the key motivators of their employees and customers, the more likely that organization will have sustainable success.  My second blog discussed empathy in the technological age. In this article, I will explore empathy as a customer attraction and retention strategy.

What’s the best way to keep an eye on what your customers need and want? I’ve been reading a lot about empathy in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, by Dev Pataik and Peter Mortensen. The authors make a great case for teaching leaders, sales staff or front line employees the importance of empathy in any customer contact, as noted in the smarter emotion of tolerance.

Empathy is defined as the ability to comprehend another’s feelings and to re-experience them oneself and represents an important concept central to emotionally intelligent behavior (Salovey & Mayer, 1990, pp. 194–195). Plutchik (1987, p. 43) describes empathy as a sharing of positive and negative emotions that promotes a bond between individuals.  The goal of empathy in any customer interaction is connecting on a “human level, so the customer feels “This person or business really “gets me”!  This person is walking in my shoes!

Modern technological improvements in data-mining provide strategic plans, sales forecasts and manufacturing reports. Companies become so dependent on these models that they can lose touch with reality.  Firms use all of this information to create maps—market segmentations, research reports—of how customers use their products. But these maps are poor substitutes for actual human contact. Many managers make critical decisions based on numbers, without any personal feeling for the people they serve. They fail to spot new opportunities and innovative solutions for customers.


Nike has built an entire culture that celebrates the potential for athletic greatness in each of us. The company’s headquarters resemble an athletic center; its employees take breaks for running, basketball and soccer games. The people who develop running shoes are usually runners themselves. They possess a basic intuition and empathetic customer “know how” that cannot be captured in any market report.

Other major companies have learned the value of empathy:

  • IBM helps customers keep their information technology up and running by staying as close to them as possible.
  • Microsoft succeeded with the Xbox because it was designed for gamers by developers who love games.
  • Apple makes computers, iPhones, iPads and iPods for people who covet cool, easy-to-use products. The company’s organizational culture reflects its customers’ lifestyles.

Even though business often happens on the street, in stores and in homes, the transaction is always a human interaction.   We like to do business with people and organizations that connect on an emotional level.  It is the ability to stop, look and listen to the customer’s story – what is the need, what emotional need is unmet and how cans this needs be filled by our products or services?

This emotional connection creates a positive memory – and your customer will want to go back and do business again to capture that “positive feeing “. When companies have a real emotional connection with end users, they are more likely to come up with better product designs or service offerings. Harnessing the power of empathy closes the gap between abstract data and human needs.

Consumers don’t buy goods based on demographics. Nobody, for example, opens his wallet because he’s a 25- to 30-year-old white male with a college degree. As people go about their daily lives, problems arise that beg for solutions. Consumers are willing to spend money on solutions that will get the job done. Your ability to empathize with them and anticipate their needs determines whether your product or service will sink or swim in the marketplace.

It’s worth noting that Sony cofounder Akio Morita and Apple’s Steve Jobs were famous for never commissioning market research. Instead, they’d just walk around the world watching what people did. They put themselves in their future customers’ shoes.

Think about it. What would be some ways you could observe your clients using your company’s products or services?  How do you emotionally connect with your customers? What behaviors need to be increased to walk in your customer’s shoes? I’d love to hear from you.



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