Misconceptions About the Role of Empathy in Business – by Kelly Davison

Often when I bring up the conversation of empathy and why it matters to consumers, it invokes expressions of overwhelm and even intentional disregard from business owners. The discussion can often spiral into a litany of responses from the business owner in defense of how hard they work and how they strategize better than their competitors. Some who recognize the importance of empathy, still demote its priority for getting stuff done. Others who live by, “Like my work or leave it,” ignore the notion of valuing emotional connection entirely.

Empathy, the practice of putting oneself in another’s shoes to more fully understand their emotional state, is a fundamental human trait that drives meaningful connection and relationships. However, human empathy is not inherent. It is often the interceding and coaching of adults that train us as youngsters to behave and react with compassion to another’s state. We learn through anecdotes to feel sorry or apologize to others in the face of misfortune. In some circumstances, showing empathy may occur through celebration. Imagine being at your best friend’s birthday party and not showing excitement or complaining that they are getting all the presents. Other times, we may simply notice another’s discomfort or struggle and extend support. As humans we learn to recognize situations as having an emotional component and how we react in these situations, even in subtle ways, signals to others how we see them.

As businesses owners, it is all too easy to get wrapped up in operations and maintaining the balance sheet, which frequently distract from building customer confidence. These priorities keep businesses competing on price and products or services – a never ending battle. Exercising empathy illuminates opportunities to innovate, differentiate, and facilitate relationships, which over the long run, creates a more sustainable competitive advantage. As markets become increasingly saturated and aggressive, customer experience has become the competitive currency of the future.

Research shows that empathy is a learned trait. One that, even at a mature age, can be learned. But first, we must be aware of others and acknowledge their roles in our world, be it business or personal. It is impossible to put yourself in the shoes of others that you hardly take time to recognize. How well do you see your customers? Do you look up when they walk in the door? Do you see differences in them? How do you think about them? Are you speaking your language or theirs? Are you just counting dollar signs at the end of the day without understanding where they came from and why?

Once customers are seen for whom they are and how they relate to our business, we can then begin to “walk in their shoes” and build strategies to meet and anticipate their needs. Showing empathy can easily be misunderstood as needing to be subservient to customers, like an emotional tax business owners have to pay to build relationships. It doesn’t mean listening to hours of customer problems and sacrificing on price, nor about compromising or shifting standards to meet every expectation. Applied, empathy is translated to customers through tangible acts, things, and environments and emboldened through intangible words, attitudes, and behaviors. Empathizing with customers is about removing emotional friction and pain points in the customer experience, while elevating the positive. These activities and ways of being can be inculcated into the business through forethought, planning and internal culture, so that they become an organic part of the experience customers enjoy.

Even though different business types have different intentions behind the experiences they build, anticipating the needs of key customers is essential to showing them they come first. Demonstrating empathy goes beyond friendliness. Customers shouldn’t be the victims of business processes. Ideally, business processes should be designed with them in mind from the beginning. Customers don’t want to hear how a company’s systems complicate getting their needs met. That is an incentive to go to competitors where they may better served.

As consumers, people can quickly tell how much a business has thought about them as a customer. Demonstrating empathy isn’t about what a business offers, but the manner in which it offers it. It shows up in the details at every stage of the interaction. Becoming more astute in identifying customer types allows business owners to rethink their customer expereince through a more empathic lens. While some businesses may focus on demographics to categorize customers, to truly empathize, a business must consider other factors, such as priorities, lifestyles, and motivations. Understanding the “why” behind customer behaviors allows a business to paint a more colorful picture of key audiences. Deepening the understanding of customers will highlight how a business can play a less ordinary and more extraordinary part in a customer’s life, resulting in a more meaningful and loyal relationship.

Peachy’s Customer Experience Refresh Activity Series guides businesses serious about long-term survival and customer connection through the key steps to enhance the customer experience using our proprietary empathy-based methodology. Learn more about it here.