Customer Empathy: How to have empathy in business

Customer empathy in business matters but yet it doesn’t always happen. Author Rob Volpe, who calls himself an empathy activist, even says there’s an empathy gap.

I discuss why that is happening and how to have empathy in business in this article:

What is customer empathy?

In the simplest terms, customer empathy means that employees can truly understand what customers are going through. That could be because they’ve gone through the same or a similar situation before themselves. Or because they can see their perception and experience.

It’s not “ah, that’s not my problem” but more of “I hear you. Let me help.”

Customer empathy often has a negative connotation to it. Yet, we must empathize with these customers we are sending through this horrible phone tree.

But customer empathy can also be positive.

In a nutshell, it’s about the ability to share their feelings. Realistically, it often comes back to the areas that companies can and should improve on. When somebody is happy with an experience, you can certainly feel happy for them, and it feels good. But when it’s a negative experience, we need to figure out how to fix it.

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Rob, the author of “Tell me more about that,” breaks empathy down into two types.

Emotional empathy

“It’s feeling the feelings of somebody else,” he explained.

Rob explains that this is the empathy we use with the people in our tribe, so to speak. People who live with us, people we interact with, and that we are similar to.

You are feeling what they are feeling because you have those same rituals, behaviors and beliefs. - Rob Volpe

Cognitive empathy

“That’s when you see the perspective of somebody else,” Rob explained on the market research podcast “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.”

To show cognitive empathy, you have to figure out the other person. They are different from you and have different preferences and different needs.

"Cognitive empathy is stepping into the shoes of that other. Try to see the world from their point of view." - Rob Volpe

Rand Fishkin, CEO of SparkToro said on “Reel Talk” that we “do have to recognize and have empathy for the fact that different people are different.”

And that’s often the case for the customer relationship because of who works at a company and who buys the products that the company sells.

“When you are working with your consumer, your consumer is often not you,” said Rob. “Therefore you have to use cognitive empathy to understand them.”

Read next: Consumers Weigh In: The best customer service examples

How to develop empathy in business

All of us, in one way or another, wear the hat of a customer at some point. We talk with companies that offer the products we want. At times, we have to call when there’s a problem. Other times, we are so happy with our customer experience and the company’s responsiveness.

With that in mind, we should be able to relate to customer experiences, but sometimes we don’t when we are at work and are on the other side of the relationship.

“Sometimes we leave our own consumer experience behind,” said Priscilla McKinney, CEO at Little Bird Marketing. “Maybe we even leave a bit of our humanity behind. I sit at my desk and put my marketer hat on. ‘OK, the client needs this revenue and get this message out, so I’m doing this offer or this campaign.'”

But, she continues, the employee can’t lose the connection to the consumer. And their own experiences on how people should be treated. That’s where customer empathy comes in. We can connect better with our customers when we genuinely feel what they need and how we can help.

Certainly, frontline staff needs to be empathetic to customers and use the best language and problem-solving skills to show that empathy.

But really, anyone in a company needs to be empathetic, including market researchers. Reggie Murphy, senior director, UX research at Zendesk, calls that being an empathetic researcher.

To be an empathetic researcher, these three steps help:

  • You care
  • Have curiosity
  • Are contentious

"Being empathetic is about making the connection."

At the end of the day, it’s coming back to figuring out what the actual problem for the consumer is.

Why is empathy in business hard?

Rob explained that we are all born with empathy – that it’s like a muscle.

“It has to be trained,” he said. “And if you don’t train the muscle, what happens? The muscle is flabby. It’s flat.”

Rob said that part of the reason people lack empathy is that they haven’t practiced it. For example, children are scheduled so much with activities and have been since perhaps the 1990s that they aren’t doing the activities that build that muscle.

“It was taken away that downtime that kids had just to be bored,” Rob said. “When you are bored, you naturally do more activities – like role play. Whether you are playing with dolls or action figures or going into the backyard and playing cops and robbers.”

Those are empathy-building opportunities because kids play like they are actually in those characters’ shoes.

“When you take away opportunities for people, for kids to do that, their muscles aren’t going to be as strong,” he said, adding that technology is also distracting from empathy-building tasks. Empathy specifically started declining in 2001, according to studies, he said.

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Then we have social media, which is about self-validation and is often about making yourself appear in the best light.

“Social media is very much me directed as in making me feel good and not about showing empathy to others,” Rob said.

"If people don't have empathy with each other that means they are not communicating as well as they could." Rob Volpe

Sometimes it’s about how we connect with consumers. Are we reading their open-ended responses, or are we seeing a summary chart of what the group of consumers thinks as a whole? Consider different research methods to reach different goals.

There’s a real human being on the other side of that research. There’s not a ton of empathy in charts and graphs.

Reggie added that empathy in business and research can also be hard when we don’t understand our own biases, and we all have them.

“We are all human beings, so we all have cognitive biases,” Reggie said. “We all have lived experiences, belief systems, and values. The way we live our lives. For every project that we work on, it’s important to understand our own biases and check those at the door.”

To truly understand the consumer, Reggie said, it’s important to be “hyper-observant.”

Read next: Using online communities to get answers your company needs from consumers

The impact of the empathy crisis

Without empathy, it’s harder to collaborate, be a good team member and even ideate well. All these areas can have an impact on customer experience. Lacking empathy also makes it harder to listen to customers and understand problems and improve.

Read next: Customer health: How do you measure relationships with your customers?

“Good luck trying to create an advertising campaign if you don’t understand the person you are trying to advertise to,” Rob said.

How to be more empathetic in business

Stop just checking tasks off the list is one thing. Let’s stick with the marketer example. Getting their marketing done isn’t the same as being empathetic, said Priscilla.

Making customer empathy an official program can also help. For example, Reckitt’s “Outside In” program brings customer voices inside the company through video surveys.

“In essence, it’s an empathy program,” said Elisabeth. “It’s that sense of what people are thinking and feeling.”

Keep in mind that you aren’t necessarily the people that you serve, she said.

“The more we can give exposure to other ways of life, it can help us connect with a broader group of consumers,” Elisabeth said.

Research can be very ad-hoc, and this is something that is ongoing and trying to understand what’s important to consumers.”

Elisabeth explained that the program works for Reckitt because it’s “light touch and easy.”

Research that gets close to customers used to be harder and more time-consuming, she said. But now, video surveys can be launched in moments, and a survey can be done in hours with a geographically diverse audience.

Read next: What does it mean when companies are democratizing research?

“At the crux of it, insights is about empathy,” said Jay Lister, head of insights at Reebok. “Seeking out the diversity of thinking and culture is the way to do that. You need to be choosing to be curious.”

Really, we need to empathize with the people we serve.

“And understanding them at a deeper level than just the superficial,” added Rob.

People also should be nice and helpful, in general. I’ve talked to a company before and I wasn’t their ideal buyer. And they weren’t my ideal vendor. The salesperson was super rude and let me know about that fact. No need for that, really.

But understanding your ideal customer profile can be helpful. Their opinions and their problems should be more relevant than those of somebody who will never work with you or buy your product anyway.

Read next: How to use the Jobs to be Done framework

“When you market to everybody, you market to nobody,” said Priscilla. “That’s why you need to say on platforms like Voxpopme’s, ‘I need to talk to a specific group. That group is going to get me the insights I need.”

Really listen to the stories and understand how consumers use your product and why.

“Sometimes people will say during the research, ‘well, they aren’t using the product right,'” Priscilla said. “Um, no. The user is using the product exactly the way the user needs to be using the product.”

“If they are buying it, who cares?” Priscilla said. They are finding the best use for themselves! With that, keep in mind that the ideal customer profile can evolve.

“There could be a whole new niche of customers, but your own assumption might be keeping you from seeing them.

Creating surveys with the customer in mind

"Sometimes it feels like we've really forgotten what it feels like to be on the other side of the questionnaire."

Showing empathy also means creating our questions and picking our wording with our customers in mind. For example, don’t send unnecessarily lengthy surveys.

“We are invested in the process,” said Annie Pettit, chief research officer at E2E Research on an episode of “Reel Talk.” “And we forget that on the other side, we are talking to somebody who just got home from work, trying to cook dinner, and there’s a five-year-old tugging on their pants. They got whatever to do. This is the life of real people. They are not doing questionnaires because it’s part of the job.”

How we think of respondents also can make a difference. Don’t think of them as “samples,” said Annie. Think of them as people.

Rob advised asking open-ended questions that aren’t leading. Don’t ask the question that gets you a specific answer, but go to where the respondent’s answer is taking you.

Hearing and seeing your customers

And in qual, it’s is all about empathy, said Rob. It’s about listening, hearing, and understanding your customer. Empathy is essential.

To get started with empathy, dismantle your judgment, said Rob.

Dismantling your judgment allows you to listen deeper and not judge what the person is doing and saying, which is different from what you would be doing or saying.

Reggie said no matter the medium, it’s important to truly listen, including to the pauses, watch the body language when possible, and in the case of a live interview, build rapport to open the opportunities to dig deeper when it makes sense.

Read next: What are Video Surveys? How to Unlock a New Level of Insight

Where to be empathethic

Customer empathy should be part of all customer touchpoints and also throughout the product lifecycle. Empathy is a step in the design thinking process, which I explain in this article.

"The empathize stage is about really understanding what problem we are trying to solve for our customers."

That also includes immersing ourselves in the consumer environment, said Voxpopme Founder Andy Barraclough in an episode of “Reel Talk.”

“And then it’s how do we socialize that internally,” he added.

Empathy in the workplace

Customer empathy can be a hiring issue as well. Make sure the team’s makeup represents the customer base and has shared experiences to make customer empathy easier.

Have a team as best as you can that represents the worldviews of the customer.

To truly understand and work for our customers, we need to have customer empathy. And that involves a mix of emotional and cognitive empathy. Be human. It will make it easier to help other humans.

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What’s a question you’d like to ask consumers?