“Sell your cleverness and buy bewilderment.
Cleverness is mere opinion. Bewilderment brings intuitive knowledge.” – Rumi

Empathy is the ability to understand how other people think and feel, and the ability to see the world through their eyes. We often think of empathy as a personal trait. We say someone is empathetic when they are able to take the perspective of another person and to recognise another person’s emotions. Some professions require empathy to be demonstrated on a regular basis, and nurses are a good example of professionals whose everyday interactions with patients demand an excellent ability to understand how others feel.

But there is a problem in thinking of empathy solely as a personal trait.

When we think of empathy as part of someone’s personality, it makes empathy intangible, as though empathy is something people were born with. This notion hinders organizations from taking concrete actions to develop empathy as an organizational strength towards customer-centricity.

When we empathize, we gain new perspectives – a.k.a reframing.

The reason why empathy needs to be understood more concretely and strategically, is that customers are the true source of innovation. When we choose to empathize with customers, instead of solely relying on intellectual analysis of research, it awakens our intuition to gain new perspectives. In other words, we put cleverness aside for bewilderment and intuition, and this curiosity leads to empathy. There is a direct link between empathy and the ability to innovate.

If you are wondering how to make this happen in everyday situations at work, read on 3 ways in which you can make empathy a concrete practice in your organization:

Three ways to make empathy your strategic asset:

1. Meet your customers directly.

When was last time you observed or talked to your customers directly? Direct interaction with customers allows us to engage our emotions and our senses, from sight and sound and even to touch. In doing so, we get to observe, feel and empathise with every customer as a whole person and understand their deeper motivations.

Direct research methods such as observation, one-on-one interviews and ethnography aren’t new; many organisations already use them as part of their research practice. However, I sense that there is still a ‘fear’ of direct interaction with customers. Fear that customers may give a lot of feedback we can’t handle. Fear that we may look unprofessional when we reveal our initial prototypes.

But the truth is, the result of direct interaction with customers is the total opposite of fear. I have lost count of the number of customers I have interviewed throughout my career, but I’m sure it’s more than a thousand from all over the world. And each time, the interaction always revealed something that gave me and the team a fresh gust of energy and learning. At the end of research sessions, customers I had interviewed often told me, “You are actually spending so much time with customers? Your company seems to take customers really seriously.”

To get inspiration for innovation, our research practice must be different.

We need to take a more empathy-based approach to research — which includes methods such as in-depth interviews and observing people in their environment beyond running surveys. This can help us better understand how people currently solve their problems, what matters to them, and what they aspire to be.

2 . Collect stories, not answers.

There are many methods to understand the functional needs of customers, one of the most used ones is surveys. While running a survey is useful in many situations such as validating ideas or hypotheses, these do not necessarily inspire organizations to have new ideas. In order to surface deeper customer needs, we need to collect and work with stories, rather than asking customers for answers.

Why stories?

Collecting stories is essentially the same methods as ‘in-depth interview’. The reason why I choose the term ‘stories’, as opposed to ‘interviews’ is because the word, ‘story’ shapes our mind in a certain way.

Stories are abundant sources of inspiration, because a story weaves characters, details, events, problems, and emotions into a form that we understand. When we approach interviews with ‘collecting stories’ in mind we get to be more curious. We get to look for people’s emotions, situations an a series of events.

People love sharing their stories when they are in a comfortable environment and when they feel heard. Listening to people’s stories is a great way to empathise deeply with them. In return, customers’ stories will allow us to understand the context people are operating in, and how they are currently solving their problems. Given the unstructured nature of a story, many organizations shy away from this method.

Human-beings are multi-faceted, sophisticated and emotional creatures. Instead of approaching them as customers, connect with them as a whole person. You will get to better understand their circumstances and their deeper needs that are often not verbalised. Identifying this kind of behavioral and emotional insights opens up our perspectives towards innovation opportunities.

A simple shift of mindset can help us to embrace the power of collecting stories as a research method. Whenever you meet with a customer, maintain the frame of divergent mind that you are there to listen to their stories as opposed to seeking ‘answers’ from a set of predefined questions. 

3 . Identify customers’ jobs-to-be-done beyond functional needs.

Empathy plays an important role in understanding customers’ needs, because what drives customers to make certain decisions are not purely functional. Some researchers have found that emotions account for up to 90% of decision-making, so it’s essential to understand what people’s emotional or social needs beyond functional needs are in order to design products and services.

One of a great examples is the story of how the initial iPod was designed. When Apple first introduced the iPod in 2001, they understood that consumers needed more than a portable MP3 music player to listen to music. They identified emotional needs: that people want to feel cool and have fun. They also saw social needs: that people wanted to appear to be early adopters.

These decisions affected the device design, leading to the iconic white color. 20 years ago, most earpieces or headphones were black. Apple therefore decided to design the iPad and the earphones in exactly the opposite way: in white. It made wearing an iPod so visible. I remember when I became an early user of the first iPod, and the pride I took wearing the white earpiece on a train commute. I also remember exchanging a friendly nod with another person who was also wearing the white earpiece, because we knew we shared this coolness. Apple’s choice of white supported these emotional and social consumer needs in a visible way, and it came down to their ability to empathize in the design process – understanding users’ emotional and social needs beyond the functional ones.

Having this ‘jobs-to-be-done’ concept as a framework is a great way to make empathy concrete. Because when you observe and collect stories from your customers, you can convert their stories into ‘functional’, ‘emotional’, and ‘social’ jobs that customers are trying to get done through using your products or services. You may see interesting behaviour your competitors cannot see, discover a niche in the market, or surface unexpressed customer needs.

Empathy is a conscious choice that organizations can make, to forge connections with customers and make the customer-centricity agenda real and tangible.

Get out of the office and meet your customers, and collect their stories to be inspired. These methods do not need a complete revamp of your workflows. They can be added into existing workflows to enhance what you already have. Cultivating empathy isn’t a complicated task.

Customers are your source of innovation. You can make empathy as a strategic organizational asset by turning every research practice into an opportunity to empathize with your customers. Delve into the nuances of empathetic customer research and learn 7 powerful ways to make every research activity more rewarding, in The Simplicity Playbook for Innovators.


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