Organizational Empathy is the New Secret Sauce
Every business is always looking for ways to retain customers and attract new ones, while also continuing to improve their product or service. Companies constantly strive to understand their customers better by studying gigabytes of data in spreadsheets, reports and PowerPoint presentations. Surveys, customer behavior data, and demographics all add to the decision-making process.
Experience design has shown us that understanding what the customer actually cares about, and most importantly why, is often the key to finding new opportunities for innovation. Yet, this is traditionally one of the hardest things to bring into the business process, because it requires an active, and sustained team effort to cultivate customer empathy. Empathy for the customer can be tricky to achieve since it doesn’t fit neatly into a spreadsheet or presentation. The most effective way to bring empathy for the customer into any organization is to make it part of the everyday behaviors in our work. More companies than ever before are cultivating organizational empathy, because they know it’s the new secret sauce.
It’s all about the feels, right?
It turns out we are all hardwired with a natural empathy because of how our brain works. Scientists in Italy discovered this human empathy hardware in a study with primates. They conducted tests on monkeys to see how their brains worked when planning, observing, and carrying out a variety of movements. Their major discovery came when they noticed that certain subjects, that were simply observing other monkeys, fired off the same brain signals as if they were doing the action they were observing. When the observing monkeys watched other monkeys or the scientists eating peanuts, their brains produced the same signals as if they were eating peanuts themselves.
If you find it challenging to develop customer empathy within your organization, don’t think about empathy as the first goal, but rather focus on facilitating patterns of curiosity
This discovery was identified as mirror-neurons. In humans this process is much more socially sophisticated. When we see someone get hurt, enter a state of distress, or another emotionally-charged situation, our brains react and we feel for that person. Since everyone is hardwired for empathy, it shouldn’t be too hard to swing your stakeholder team over to understanding the customer deeply, right? Not so fast. Our experience with mirror-neurons tend to be more emotional in nature, mainly because it’s a natural reaction that doesn’t require any focused cognitive functions. This is not exactly the kind of empathy we are looking for when we are trying to develop innovative products and strategies.
Types of empathy
If you find it challenging to develop customer empathy within your organization, don’t think about empathy as the first goal, but rather focus on facilitating patterns of curiosity. Finding empathy almost always starts with being curious about another person’s experience. It’s an approach that facilitates empathetic thinking. For empathy to be effective as a means of creating customer delight and driving growth, however, it has to be about thinking, which is known as cognitive empathy, versus feeling, which we know as affective empathy.
Cognitive empathy is also called “perspective taking”. This is where we take on the other person’s experience as our own, typically by observation and analysis of primary research. Design researchers bring this perspective via usability testing, in-home interviews, and other qualitative approaches. They then synthesize the research data into the form of mental models, journey maps, and personas. Simply bringing these models to a stakeholder team, however, does not ensure that people will automatically achieve empathetic thinking. We all have our own ideas, behaviors, and filters of information. The challenge is to develop and curate an empathetic nature over time and through changes in people’s behavior. How you talk about your customers, view their data, and synthesize it into meaning needs to be part of the organizational culture.
Curating an empathic process
Developing that secret sauce of organizational empathy is something that takes time, energy, and focus. Even with the best intentions and effort it can feel like you are swimming upstream, especially if you work in a large organization. So how do you bring the right customer empathy into focus and develop it over time? Here are some tips to avoid pitfalls and spark a new way of organizational thinking about your customers.
Know your culture
If it’s not clear to you what kind of culture your company has, diagnose it using the Competing Values Framework. Authors Cameron and Quinn studied a wide range of companies and found that they can fall into any of four different types of culture. Each one responds differently to us as designers, so it’s important to know the cultural values, how to get empathy to resonate, and how best to begin to affect change. For example, in a culture that values sales performance and metrics (Market culture), you’re not going to get any traction for organizational empathy unless you can show how it can impact the core metrics in a positive way.
Be a leader
As a designer or researcher, you can be the one to facilitate customer empathy and patterns of curiosity within the group. Focus the conversation on what’s important to everyone (culture) and be persistent. Look for ways to bring the customer experience into the conversation and back it up with data. Don’t be dogmatic, but rather be open and supportive. Have some empathy for your stakeholders and understand where they are in their thought processes on understanding the customer better.
Before you can curate empathy on a broad scale, start where you know you can be successful. Find a project or stakeholder team that already “gets it” and work towards developing a story of the customer with that team. Infuse them with a passion for understanding the customer and help them develop the skills required for cognitive empathy. Then coach them to do the same throughout your company. Depending on the size of your organization this can be seen like a climb up a steep hill or conquering Mt. Everest. Pick where you believe you can succeed, and just try to make it to base camp, versus the summit. Remember, conquering a mountain requires one focused step at a time.
Infuse artifacts with empathy
In order to change the internal conversation about customers make your artifacts and products come to life with the voice of the customer. Tell the story of the customer using pictures and quotes. Anything to connect stakeholders with the actual experience of your customers will help. If your organization relies heavily on data in spreadsheets, compliment that data with the human side of the customer experience. Every organization needs both quantitative and qualitative data to make decisions. If you can marry the two to tell a story that drives home the process of cognitive empathy, that’s half the battle.
Whether you are trying to shift your own organization, or just want to know the customer better, listening is the key. In fact, this is probably the single most important thing anyone can do to facilitate organizational empathy. Actively listening to your customers will help your team to develop a robust culture of cognitive empathy. Listening carefully to each other will help you be a better team. The ability to find empathy for others is hardwired in all of us, but listening is one of the key skills needed to find the right kind of empathy and that makes a difference in business.
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Brian Winters is CX researcher and strategist with over 15 years experience in understanding people through primary research. He’s conducted all forms of user research in the insurance, retail, finance, travel, and healthcare industries.