Closing The Empathy Gap: 5 Ways To Walk in the Shoes of the Customer

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

While the oft-cited saying may make sense when it comes to interpersonal relations, it’s off the mark when you’re talking about addressing the needs – and vying for the business – of customers in a hyper-competitive market. Customers – all kinds of stakeholders – want what they want. So, to fully understand and anticipate customer needs – to get at their hearts and minds – organizations need an empathic, rather than a what-fits-me-fits-my-customer, approach.

The catch? Arriving at a state of empathy – an almost visceral understanding of the feelings of another person – is a journey. Getting going on the right path demands that organizations not only uncover empathetic insights across the full range of customers, but also facilitate the activation of these insights internally so marketers, brand managers, innovation, design and product development teams can leverage them in their day-to-day roles. This type of scalable empathy is hard to achieve, but can be quite powerful if captured.

Enter Michael Perman, head of the innovation consultancy C’EST WHAT?, and former senior director of global marketing at Levi Strauss. Perman and his team provided the insights and foresights that led to development of Levi’s Commuter jeans product line.

Perman shared his forward-thinking ideas, empathy coming-of-age story and some key takeaways with a group of marketers at an event hosted by Maru/Matchbox that took place during October’s Corporate Research Conference.

For Perman, the process of unearthing “aha” customer insights through empathy began at Levi’s a number of years back. A team of designers at the company were struggling to relate to their core audience. But Perman introduced the concept of design principles that were derived from empathy. Soon, the entire team began to connect more deeply with customer needs and bring a deep understanding of “why” people think, feel, or behave in certain ways to their work – resulting in more relevant products and services.

Observing customers in their day-to-day environment, and understanding the dominant set of ideals and beliefs that motivate the actions that motivate the customers, the team began to appreciate that a fairly large segment did a lot of cycling, especially to and from work.

Because of their active, bike-centric lifestyle, these folks not only needed better flexibility allowed by stretchy jeans, but also fabrics that wouldn’t smell bad (antimicrobial), had reflective properties for night riding, and were water-repellent and had special pockets/loops for gear.

These breakthrough discoveries – which ultimately enabled Levi’s to design the highly successful Commuter jeans product lines – were all enabled by empathy. Levi’s applied the concepts of design principles through empathy to several initiatives with product designers, store designers, marketers and merchandisers.

To help brands and marketing researchers generate more effective customer insights, Perman outlined various tips for enhancing empathy that have proven effective in his work and career. The following are his top five.

5 Ways to Enhance Your Empathy

1. Reveal customer cravings

Unlock and understand people’s inner desires by getting a handle on their cravings. Learn what they crave in the moment and what they crave throughout their lives. Craving is caused by the brain chemical (hormones) dopamine, cravings propel decisions – and point to what customers really want, not just what they might say they want.

2. Identify pain points and sweet spots

Perman developed his sense of empathy early on in his career. He was a salesman who made in-person calls on foodservice cooks tasked with producing meals using very limited ingredients. Through conversations with this group of customers, he formed an accurate picture of the challenges they faced every day – namely, doing more with less.Leading corporate researchers are painting similar pictures of their target audiences by engaging in ongoing, two-way dialogues that evolve over time through a variety of qualitative, quantitative and mobile methodologies.

3. Uncover sources of inspiration

For Nike, Perman once conducted ethnographic research to understand what Michael Jordan meant to teens and college students. People shared their feelings and ideas through photographs and music. A deeper sense of what emotional connection emerged: The NBA player was more than an athlete; rather, to this community, Jordan represented meaning and hope, which hinted at the marketing juggernaut he would become not just for one particular group of people, but across cultures and generations. Consumers thought of him as a timeless Renaissance Man who would be meaningful to them even after he retired from sports.

4. Exploit new technologies

A powerful new route to achieving empathy is online insight communities, which allow direct and immediate access to customers’ opinions and perspectives. These platforms can provide access to customers’ hearts and minds in a highly representative and scalable manner.

5. Study client organizations anthropologically

How is a company structured? How is information accessed, shared and absorbed? For insights to be discovered and exploited – turned into successful products and services – empathy must be scalable across brand management, product development and design teams to enable them to bring the ideas to fruition in the marketplace.

Organizations now have the capability to cultivate empathy at a scale that was once unimaginable. Those that fail to take advantage of these new capabilities risk being usurped by competitors and new entrants that design products and services to consumer needs. This moment in time – where customers are empowered and brands succeed by meeting customer needs – is perfect for market research professionals to lead their organizations to the promised land.

Community-based learning platforms can help marketers not only close the “empathy gap” by understanding their customers better, but also achieve better business results in the marketplace by giving customers what they really want.

Learn more about our retail consumer insight solutions.

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