How empathy will make you a better business owner

Empathy. It’s a popular word in business today. And, for good reason. 

Empathy is a powerful part of the human experience that we, as entrepreneurs, can tap into in order to learn about what people are really looking for, hoping for, and wishing for. 

We can use that information to solve problems, design new products and experiences, and open new spaces in the marketplace. For that to be true, we need to build authentic human connections with the people we serve.

Here’s how Brené Brown defines empathy. “Empathy is simply listening, holding space, withholding judgment, emotionally connecting, and communicating that incredibly healing message of you’re not alone.”

Now, you might be thinking: that sounds nice, but what does that look like in practical terms for my business? 

Empathy will change how you see the world.
Empathy will change how you see the world.

Let’s align on some key terms.

Stick with me here – I promise we’ll get back to empathy.

This might seem like a small nuance, but trust me, it’s a critical distinction: customer and consumer are two different things. 

A customer is the person who buys your product or service. A consumer is the person who uses your product or service. Yes, sometimes they’re the same. But, sometimes there’s a critical distinction to be made. 

Here’s an example. A father goes to the grocery store to buy apple juice for his daughter. In this case, the father is the customer and the daughter is the consumer. 

Here’s another example. You buy yourself an iPhone. In this case, you’re both customer and consumer, making the distinction irrelevant. In the first example, however, it could impact the decisions you make about your business.

Here’s how to use empathy to your advantage.

One of my clients started a company to give older people the opportunity and ability to walk with a trained professional in order to improve their health. She designed the product and experience for her consumers – the older people who needed help walking. But, she had to sell and explain the benefits to her customers – their families – who, in some cases, helped make financial and care decisions on their behalf. She was able to cater to both groups. But, that was only possible because she understood that her customers and consumers had slightly different, but related needs. 

Her consumers wanted to feel confident, independent, and to not feel shame in getting help. 

Her customers wanted to know that their family members would be safe and that the investment was worth the improvements they would see in health, cognition, and mobility. 

Again, slightly different, but related needs. With this distinction in mind, my client used empathy to design, not only her marketing and messaging, but the ecosystem around her core service. 

In other words, she designed from a place of empathy. 

Now, it’s your turn.

To learn more about your business opportunity, you’ll need to venture out into the wild to see people in action. Talk to people. Learn how they interact with existing products and services by asking or observing them directly. 

Here are a few questions to get you started:  

  • Tell me about your experience with ____________. 
  • How does ____________ fit into your life right now? 
  • What about ____________ is important to you?
  • Walk me through a typical experience with ________. 
  • Who else in your house engages with __________? 

It doesn’t take much to get going. Keep it open-ended and go where the conversation takes you. Be open to being wrong and to learning something new. There’s a lot of different ways to facilitate these conversations. For more ideas, check out IDEO’s Design Kit

It might sound a little uncomfortable. That’s normal. And, I challenge you to lean into that discomfort because it’s in that space that we tend to learn and grow the most. 

I’ll also say that it’s an incredibly rewarding experience. I’ve seen clients walk away from their consumer interviews with a fully different perspective on their projects – myself included. Trust me, listening to how things unfold in real life – from someone else’s perspective – will yield significantly more insights than just thinking about it at your desk.

Note: this article originally appeared on my LinkedIn page.

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