Empathy as Competitive Advantage

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Beyond just listening

For years now the mantra of “listening” to members and other customers has been synonymous to “caring” for customer and running a member/customer-centered organization.

Yet what good is listening without understanding? And what good is understanding without action—applying lessons learned and changing the way you see the world and do things as a result?   

Not that listening is not as fundamental as breathing in relationships. It is. But listening without empathy and the willingness to transform can only result in cosmetic improvements that have no impact on your relationship with members/customers and your value to them.

To establish deep connection with your various stakeholders and resonate with what most matters to them, you must lead your organization beyond passive listening to transformative empathy.

In Design Thinking empathy is the first step in problem-solving, idea or product development.

Instead of starting with, say, your strategic plan or jumping to diagnosing the problem you want to solve, you begin by immersing yourself in the life and perspective of your customers—conducting interviews, monitoring their online behavior, using participant observation and other ethnographic approaches, etc.

And you don’t simply conduct one interview. You employ an iterative process of repeated interviews to get to your subjects’ underlying emotions and motivations; and develop a product through multiple levels of customer feedback. In other words, you replace transactions with substantive, collaborative relationships that grow over time.

What is empahy?

This approach drills down to customers’ unarticulated needs that others usually miss thus giving you a solid basis for competitive advantage. 

Applying empathy in the way you think and conduct business each day gives you a path of continuous learning and innovation. By engaging potential end users, rather than just staff, in idea generation and co-design, you ensure that the products or solutions you develop are what customers truly want, rather than what they say they want.

Empathy goes beyond listening and even understanding. It is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, see the world through their eyes and establish an authentic connection with them. And building an empathetic organization requires staff with a burning curiosity about members and the market; capabilities for psychological insight, deep relationship-building and innovation.  

“Empathy means not simply hiring hands and heads but hiring hearts,” says Irwin Kula in a blog.

We are not talking about touchy-feely things here. It is not about remembering birthdays or being “nice” but about deciphering hidden motivations, uncovering unarticulated needs or opportunities, seeing members as co-developers rather than mere end-users; and entering collaborative relationships rather than conducting transactions.

“Empathy is a serious practice, a serious capacity,” Kula says. “No virtue distinguishes our humanity more than empathy. No virtue changes the bottom line more on how, with whom, where, and why we do what we do. Empathy makes concern for others no longer an external experience; it requires connecting with people from within.”

Making empathy the center of a business means incorporating it as “a core element in the design of all products, services, value chains, delivery systems and engagement with customers.”

And Kula quotes Tuchman, CEO of TeleTech, in a statement that is extremely relevant and applicable to associations:

 “The most important value for business in this emerging era is empathy…Successful organizations must see the world through the eyes of every customer who interacts with their brand. Only then can they harness the potential of technology to personalize every interaction and create a truly human experience — one that anticipates their customers’ needs, respects their time, appreciates their efforts and values their individuality.”