Building Customer Empathy for Innovation

by Holly G Green

Empathize if you want to strengthen customer bond

Building Customer Empathy for Innovationby Holly G. Green

You’re experiencing unknown aches and pains in part of your body, so you schedule an appointment to see your doctor. During the examination, the doctor doesn’t ask any questions or conduct any tests. Instead, she says, “Here’s what I think is wrong with you” and then prescribes a medicine that has nothing to do with your ailments.

I hope that’s never happened to you. But when you think about it, we often treat our customers in much this manner. When we don’t pause to try to understand our customer’s world, they perceive us much like the imaginary doctor who asks no questions yet has all the answers.

Good leaders know the importance of building empathy (the ability to understand and share the feelings of others) with employees. But we sometimes forget that we need to practice empathy with our customers as well. Especially in B2B and professional services firms, where the relationship itself is an integral part of the product or service we sell.

How can you build empathy with your customers?

Put aside your assumptions.

By far, the biggest obstacle to developing empathy with customers is what you think you already know about what they want and need. Customer needs change frequently. What you knew to be true a year or even six months ago may already have changed. The next time you talk with a customer, consciously tell yourself, “For the moment, I’m going to forget about everything I think I know about this customer and just listen.”

Ask questions.

They say that the best salespeople listen at least 70 percent of the time during a sales call. You can put this principle to good use by casting aside your assumptions and asking a lot of questions.

  • What are we not doing well that you would like us to improve on?
  • What else can we offer you that would make your job even easier/your company even more successful?
  • Suppose you ran my company. What would you do differently to serve a business like yours?
  • What are we doing well that we should keep doing?
  • When we are a trusted business adviser, what are the core things we are doing for you?

Get inside their world.

Given how quickly market conditions can change these days, understanding your customer’s world requires more than just a current assessment of the relationship. It also involves taking a peek at the future. Ask questions like:

  • What has changed in your business/market/industry since the last time we talked?
  • What worries you about where your market or industry is headed?
  • Where are the biggest opportunities for your business in the next year or two?
  • What is the biggest threat to your business? How can we help?
  • What could we be doing now to help you adjust to new market realities?

Spend time to look for data on industry trends and shifts that are happening in your customers’ world including with their competitors. Share information with them.

Ask your customer to expose their thinking.

As customers respond to your questions, they will likely give you “what” and “how” answers. To gain a deeper understanding of their world, ask them to explain the “why” behind the “what” and the “how.” Ask them to identify the assumptions that lead them to see the world the way they do. This will provide greater insight into your customer’s needs while also strengthening the relationship.

Change your perspective to meet their needs.

Depending on what customers say, you may have to do a lot more than temporarily set aside your assumptions. You may have to discard them completely. Don’t allow yourself to get caught in the trap of thinking, “Well, that was interesting but we’ve been doing this a long time so we know what’s best for our customers.” Or, “We hear what our customers are saying, but it doesn’t apply to the way we do business.”

Instead, look closely at how you define the value of your product or service and whether it truly aligns with your customer’s perception of value. The wider the gap between the two, the more you need to shift your way of thinking. Ask, “What if we shifted our perspective to match that of our customers? How would that change the way we serve our target market? What would we need to do differently in order to deliver maximum value?” Once you’ve adjusted your perspective, keep your new definition of value visible at all times so that it guides organizational behaviors.

We all want to feel respected and heard, including customers. Building empathy will go a long way towards meeting that most basic human need.

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Holly G GreenHolly is the CEO of THE HUMAN FACTOR, Inc. ( and is a highly sought after and acclaimed speaker, business consultant, and author. Her unique approach to creating strategic agility, helping others go slow to go fast, will change your thinking.

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