Why showing empathy to customers is so important

Written by:

Jeffrey P. Coleman

Edited by:

Few would disagree with the statement “empathy’s important.”

(Except perhaps those who’ve read Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion by Paul Bloom, and at that point I’d argue we’re getting perhaps a bit too far ahead of ourselves.)

So, let’s start with a definition of empathy to keep us all on the same page:

Empathy involves understanding others at a deep enough level that they in fact feel listened to and understood.

Similar to allyship, it’s not something you can simply assume for yourself. Others must first recognise empathy in you. They’ll know it when they feel it.

Everyone can demonstrate empathy for someone. The key is to broaden that “someone” because your business likely has a range of stakeholders, clients, and customers.

If you’re willing, you can learn ways to incorporate more empathy into your business over time by listening to your audience closely. What’s more, a business built on greater empathy is often more successful.

How do we get better at empathising with our audience?

Asking questions in different ways is a wonderful place to start. It’s a wonderful way to continue as well.

Can we ever ask too many questions?

If the audience says, “Get on with it!” — well then, yes!
They could secretly be saying this if you’re noticing low completion rates for a 20-question survey, for instance. So, the takeaway is, be intentional with your questions.

If we craft questions carefully and order them well, we can minimise the chances of us asking things we already know the answer to. Listen to both what’s said and what’s not said. Consider also the secondary consequences of what’s said. Remember what you stand to gain from these answers and minimise the effort a survey respondent has to make in order to help you.

You’re saying if we consider carefully how to ask our questions, we’ll get better results for our survey?

Exactly! And the best part is, you’ll get better results for your marketing and sales teams too.

One great way to communicate well with an audience you’re listening to is to echo back what you’re hearing. Use the other’s language to connect dots in what you’re hearing, perhaps adding a pinch of brand personality – although you might want to wait until later. If what you say resonates, you’ll have verified your understanding AND communicated clearly to your audience that you’re listening to them. This often leads to increased sales and greater customer loyalty. 

Bringing it back to surveys then, if you can effectively show you’re listening to your audience through the intentional way you structure surveys, it can lead to greater completion rates.

Testing out ideas through customer support calls and emails before distributing questions to hundreds or thousands of people can also help increase survey success. Ever felt exasperated when filling out a questionnaire that was meant to take three minutes and after those three minutes you’re a mere 38% of the way through? Avoid that mistake by letting audience empathy inform how you create surveys.

Are there other ways that empathetic listening could be helpful to our business?

This short book Websites that Convert explains how to listen to customers and use what you learn in website copy. When you bring the right energy and a clearly explained offering that meets your (potential) customers’ needs, website visitors will not only feel heard, they’ll convert to clients.

Also, customer reviews, even the negative ones, can teach you how to improve your business. Knowing your customers — by hearing what they have to say — increases your empathy and allows for better business insights. You can dig more into the details of that here.

If we create a product that solves a pain point we’ve had personally, it means we automatically understand our target audience… or does it?

Well, that depends on whether your target audience is identical, or at least similar, to you.

Some products solve frustrations for us that don’t look the same for others. It’s important to not assume your experience will be identical to someone else’s. That said, if we’re passionate about solving problems, we as product creators can still find ways to adapt what we do for the benefit of others. How? By staying curious.

Do we need to stay curious forever?

A curious mindset is an ideal place for empathy to grow. Believing you haven’t figured it all out yet and being OK with that is the beginning of deeper curiosity. Let the questions keep flowing, stay calm if faced with a question you don’t know the answer to, and you may not ever have to answer the question at all. Just keep going with the questions!

OK — here’s another question for you: doesn’t COVID-19 change everything?

The pandemic has changed a lot of things, especially when it comes to the things we used to take for granted. In the case of audience empathy, our instinctive response to the ongoing crisis might be to cut out distractions and double down on what we already know how to do well.

  • If cutting out distractions means staying focused (not checking Instagram constantly, not jumping recklessly from task to task, taking intentional breaks), then we’re on the right track.
  • If cutting out distractions means listening less to others and focusing only on the work of execution then we might end up headed down the wrong road faster.

We know we can’t succeed on our own.  So, why not double down on understanding others better, giving them the feeling they’re being heard, especially when we’re feeling overwhelmed ourselves? Amidst COVID uncertainty, it might be that input from a wide range of people helps us step carefully into a direction we wouldn’t otherwise have found. In other words, keep connecting with others.

If we’re a data-driven company, are we on the right path when it comes to centering our business around audience empathy?

Measuring click rate, page views, and website traffic can all help you figure out how your audience behaves. It’s a great way to see what’s working and what’s not, particularly when you already have a workflow or funnel.

Unfortunately, however, quantitative indicators are rubbish for understanding people’s emotions. So, if we rely on performance data alone, we’ll struggle to understand WHY people behave the way they do.

Journey maps, personas, field studies, surveys and customer success teams who strengthen the feedback loop: these tools and methods are far more effective in understanding how your customers feel and why they take the actions they do.

With that knowledge, you can serve their needs more holistically. You’ll be able to measure both what they do and why. It’s like ‘walking in their shoes’ — and your mind’s ability to grasp what others are going through (your target audience in particular) will improve.

Will ‘walking in their shoes’ make our content more engaging and accessible as well?

Good question. We think so, YES.

Here are some examples:

  • Mossy Earth uses empathy to connect their members to the importance of re-wilding and forest preservation. They use personalised videos to welcome new members, and send regular updates in accessible language, making the conservation experience consistently fun and interactive.
  • The BBC 50:50 Project effectively improved audience engagement by significantly increasing the amount of female-produced content. Among 16 to 34 year olds of all genders, 40% of those surveyed said they enjoyed BBC content more because they saw and heard from more women. The success of the project has also opened up greater opportunities to approach more inclusively issues related to ethnicity or (dis)ability.
  • The Empathy Museum (pre-COVID) allowed people to literally walk in the shoes of others while listening to their stories, and in a matter of minutes, allowed participants to feel greater understanding of those different from them. (They have since created a podcast if you’re not in the UK or aren’t sure when the pandemic will be over.)

Feeling inspired?
We are too.
Listening to others can be so empowering!

If I understand correctly, you’re saying we should treat people as complex humans rather than “leads” or “users”. So we should incorporate close listening as a core part of our business model. By doing so, our business would be more likely to succeed and we’d also enjoy the journey. Sound about right?

Exactly. Now we’re talking!

All that said, don’t forget to be kind to yourself. Building relationships with real people is tough and takes time, and sometimes the process is frustrating.

If you’ve not experienced exactly what everyone else has experienced, that’s OK. If you don’t have time for a full research study, then interview a few people outside your immediate circle, and keep going from there (start small). Experiment with it.

This is all great, but what if I haven’t listened to others and my business is in crisis because of it?

If you’ve made mistakes and not listened well to others (because you were stressed and lacked sleep), you can start today. First, take a nap. When you’re ready, start where we began, asking good questions. If you need to, don’t hesitate to admit you’ve been wrong. Being honest about that is a wonderful way to allow those you’ve hurt to feel understood and listened to. The crisis will pass in time.

Amazing. Can you summarise all you’ve shared about audience empathy in one sentence?

Listening to others so they feel understood is a powerful thing and something you can get better at with practice — it’ll also change the way you work for the better.

About the author

Jeffrey Paul Coleman spent many years as a UX Recruitment Consultant in New York City. Hearing that UX professionals were struggling to find mentorship and career advice, he actively supported the scaling of several mentorship communities and started career coaching on the side. As a result, his candidates and clients recognised him as one of the most caring and personable people in the industry. While his goal was helping talented people, in his first year he led the company at 160% to quota, and in his last year recruiting, he took pride in having a strong client referral business and a 50% success rate from candidate submission to interview. To quote Jeffrey: “The bottom line benefits from audience empathy. I’ve seen it.”

Today, Jeffrey lives in Paris, France, where he’s concentrating on making tech more inclusive: through creating content, helping professionals who are currently underrepresented in tech to network and find employment, and teaching English. He also voluntarily supports UXinsight Festival, where Sabine spoke about Storytelling for UX Researchers in 2020.

Many emails and Zoom calls later, we discovered that we kept coming back to the broader topic of ‘audience empathy’ — and the idea for this article was born.