There’s No Substitution for Empathy

You can’t truly solve customer’s problems on your own. No matter the industry, the time spent building empathy with the people most affected by your decisions will pay dividends.

The editor-in-chief of Our State Magazine, Elizabeth Hudson, used to tell our team that we couldn’t create a magazine for the people of North Carolina by sitting at our computers all day. She urged us to get in the car and go explore: Notice what’s most interesting about a small town, stop and talk to strangers, and take time to hear people’s stories. This is how you mine for gold as a writer or producer. It’s how you stumble upon the unexpected, spark new ideas, and promote loyalty from readers.

Last year, I was on a project for client to solve a problem that primarily had to do with a process in their retail locations. Despite the tight timeline and budget, I decided to travel to about 10 of their retail locations to spend time with store managers and associates.

I spent a full day, sometimes two, in each location. I sat and watched associates interact with customers and talked to managers as they walked about the store. One associate, who was not shy about sharing her thoughts, turned to me when it was just the two of us and said, “You know, I’ve been working for this company for 19 years and you’re the first person to come ask me for my opinion in person.”

The result of those visits was a research insights summary that not only illuminated the root cause of the client’s problem, but additional areas of concern for the business. A deeper understanding of the problem prompted more creative ideation from team members across the corporate level. Most importantly, at least a handful of the store employees were heard and felt gratitude for the chance to share their experiences.

A common research theme among enterprise customer experience teams is “Know me.” This is usually rooted in some qualitative research conducted by that team where they learned that customers want to be known and treated individually. There’s nothing all that insightful about this. In fact, it says quite a bit that we have to remind ourselves that our customers want to be known, to matter when decisions are made. While this is standard thinking for a CX team, it’s less common in the C-suite.

Knowing customers is not always easy. It not only takes time and effort, but it requires empathy, which may be the hardest aspect of them all. Empathy is the act of putting yourself in someone else’s position and seeing the world through their eyes. You have to lower your guards, remove your assumptions, and be open to learning something new.

You can’t solve someone else’s problems on your own. There are little to no complete answers behind your desk. No matter the industry, the effort it may take to spend time with your clients, customers, patients, or users will pay dividends. There is no substitution for time spent with the people most impacted by your decisions.