The art of empathy: how to understand your customer, and maybe your girlfriend too

The art of empathy: how to understand your customer, and maybe your girlfriend too

Wouldn`t it be wonderful if we could all be a little more gentle with each other, and a little more loving, have a little more empathy, and maybe we’d like each other a little bit more.

  • Judy Garland, as quoted in Little Girl Lost (1974) by Al DiOrio, p. 9.

Empathy is one of the main skill for a wannabe design thinker (if you don’t know what is design thinking click here ). But not only, actually it is one of the main skill that are required in these latest years by organizations.

What is empathy?

Empathy is “The ability to understand and share the feelings of others.

(Oxford dictionaries)

You could easily see empathy as an art: the art of immerging oneself inside the mind and the life of others to understand which are their true, and maybe latent, needs.
It could be used in every situation in life, from work to love but we will stop at the first one, even if my sentimental life could be very interesting for me, I doubt it could be the same for you.

So, let’s talk about empathy in work. I really think that being able to understand your customer could give a not-so-little extra kick for your company.

A brief example

Think about different business units in a company, trying to understand each other’s problems and limitations would help them achieve better results. Sometimes in a company, like in a love relationship (damn I must stop speaking about love), there are a lot of agreements. Most of the time these compromises are seen as  stepbacks in order to achieve 3 steps forward later.

Empathy inside organizations

Success for a company means creating value for shareholders and stakeholders or, better said, making customers happy. Which better way to make customers happy if not by understanding them in the best way possible fulfilling not only their current needs but also their future ones?

Now take a look at the table above that represents a study in which researchers studied the amount of “empathy” in each company. The interesting part is that, the four companies at the top have a strong technological soul (facebook, google, linkedin and netflix) and this fact made me question myself “Is it something random?”

The answer was pretty clear: NO, and you know why? Because of DATA.

How could you get to know people you never met? Through what they share on social(facebook, linkedin), what are their interests (netflix) or what are their problems (Google).

Thanks to big data and analytics software you will be able to generate a sort of “artificial empathy”. Knowing these topics means knowing what, how and why offer something to someone. People are happy to spend/invest money in services that are, or seem to be, tailored-made just for them.


Do you remember Blockbuster? (Whoooo??). Blockbuster was one of the best company worldwide during ‘90s with a simple business model: it was a big video store where you could rent movies.

But a problem arose:

Let me ask you a question: “what could be better than going by car to a blockbuster store and rent a movie (and then bringing it back 3 days later)?”

Answer: “selecting and watching the movie directly from your couch”

Did they see that need coming? Probably yes. Did they do anything? Definetely no. Why?

“We have a solid business and nothing will make us collapse” (a probable cit.). If they would have listen what their customer really wanted, Blockbuster would have written an entire different story but, you know, Netflix happens.

Netflix tried to warn Blockbuster, proposing a partnership to the latter. Unfortunately blockbuster laughed Netflix over and….. You now know the story.

How to be more emphatetic using your senses

I’ll try to give you some quick-win tips that will make you a better empathetic person.

    1. Think.
      Most of the times, taking some time to think is enough. To have a plan or a project is never a bad idea. Just begin thinking about which could be the main needs of others (for example the manager you have to meet for your important meeting tomorrow or the professor of your next oral exam). Be prepared about what could happen, which could be his/her emotions and know in advance which are the elements on which you could take advantage on to make a “sell”.
      AVOID PREJUDICES AT ALL COSTS. These are the first empathy’s enemy and they will blind you.
    2. Listen.
      Hearing someone is not enough, why? Well you won’t understand anything. If you just hear you’ll only understand the words coming out of the mouth’s speaker, instead listening implies going beyond mere words. That means being able to understand and to track all of the thoughts beyond said words: ideas over speeches, mind over sounds. Listen to your customer’s feedback and try to understand in which way you could solve all their problems. Being able to listen is the first step to create a solution.
    3. Observe.
      After having listened to your customers, it’s now time to observe them (maybe in situations where it’s legal so you won’t risk jail). Shadow them: in people’s behaviour you will be able track not only their needs/pain/gain, but you will know also things that even they don’t know: as you look them in bars you may find out something they do that you could exploit to ideate something new. These are the so-called latent needs.
    4. Act.
      Try, fail, reiterate, fail, re-reiterate, success [hopefully]. It’s time to try and find solutions for all the pains your customers have. Invest money and times in tools you consider useful just like:

      1. Prototypes
      2. focus groups
      3. meeting with your co-workers
      4. Customer empathy map (you can see it below)

(Un)fortunately, empathy is just the first step to success, as Jonathon Colman stated in one of his article:

  1. Start with empathy: enough said for today about this topic I guess.
  2. Continue with utility: be efficient and not frivolous, at the end your CEO wants results, and these come from how much you know about your customer.
  3. Improve with analysis: every time you set a milestone or a dead line stop yourself and try to check what was the process like. Measure results you achieved and which are the main ways to optimize processes in the future.
  4. Optimize with love (not my fault mentioning love here, it is a citation): be passionate about what you do and not waste time on frivolous tasks.


Anyhow I’m an engineer: every now and then I have to put an equation
Think + listen + watch + learn + act = Emphaty
Emphaty + Creativity = Empathyvity
Empathyvity = Success


Understanding people means foresee the future.

Marco Carniel









What do you think about the topics in this article?

Let me know by commenting in the bottom section, I would be happy to talk with you.


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