When you encourage empathy among your workforce and parlay that mindset outward to customers, your company will thrive. Why? Because empathetic businesses better understand their customers and can anticipate their wants and needs—delivering solutions to the market that customers crave. The more in tune with your customers you can be, the faster you can deliver such products or services to them before your competitors catch on.
In my work helping businesses craft strong, successful brands, the most powerful exercise is creating ideal customer profiles. Not generic proclamations such as, “We serve women between the ages of 25 and 60,” but an actual, detailed sketch of a person. Someone with a name, age, family life, interests and more. I instruct them to make this person as real as possible, based on research, past customers and their own common sense. What makes this person tick? What is their life like? What do they fear, value, crave or worry about? It is only through completing this type of exercise that a company can see the world through its customer’s eyes and understand what drives buying behaviors. The more empathy one can muster when crafting this profile, the more useful it can be to the business.
Empathy can help leaders determine the right pricing, features, packaging and even content and messaging that will most appeal to this person. And it will help them figure out the best way to promote the offering and get in front of this customer. This process of empathizing with the consumer goes beyond sending out annual surveys or providing an email address for customers to “send their thoughts.” It’s about creating such a close relationship with your customers that you can immediately create solutions for their challenges.
Airbnb is a great example. The home-sharing site considers the property owners, or “hosts,” part of their family and their customer base. If it cannot keep the homeowners happy, it will have no product to sell. Early on in the company’s history, some of the hosts lost thousands of dollars when renters trashed their residences. The hosts not only had to deal with damaged property, but also manage repair-related headaches and lost income opportunities while the home was being fixed. The company empathized with both those affected as well as those who now might fear renting out their properties and began offering a $50,000 insurance policy, which has since expanded into a $1 million policy.
Apple has also modeled the importance of empathy in understanding customer needs. Ellen Petry Leanse is a leadership consultant and author who teaches a course at Stanford University about the neuroscience of creativity and innovation, but she got her start at Apple. Early in her career, she was in product management during Steve Jobs’s tenure and the company’s rise in the ’80s and ’90s. During that time, she helped run global product introductions and, as Apple’s first user evangelist in the mid-’80s, she launched Apple’s first online connection to global users, helping customers share feedback on Apple products and what they needed from the company.
While such user forums are commonplace now, since consumers can simply reach out to a brand via social media, this type of interaction and customer influence was revolutionary in a pre-internet, pre-email time.
While working at Apple, Leanse learned firsthand about empathy in action: understanding what your customer wants to feel.
“A critical lesson I learned at Apple, and from Steve Jobs, was that the product is not the product,” Leanse says. “It is a delivery vehicle for a change in the lives, emotions, or hearts of the person you wish to serve with that product. Design the change and then you’ll back into the product.”
In order to know what customers desire, we must see things from their perspective: empathize with them. Most people only make decisions to add things to their lives when those things fulfill a specific vision for themselves.
Leanse feels this is empathy as competitive advantage.
“My feeling is that Steve had a unique form of empathy—one people don’t often understand,” says Leanse. “He genuinely believed that everyone had more potential and desire than conventional norms let them share with the world. His design intention was to help them connect with and unleash more of their talent, even more of themselves. This showed up, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, in his management style, and it certainly showed up in the way he thought about products. This ‘visionary empathy’—believing in a better future for the people who use your products—is an important consideration when we think about his impact on so many lives.”