In Another’s Shoes

What’s the best way to keep an eye on what your customers need and want? I’ve been reading about empathy in Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, by Dev Pataik and Peter Mortensen. The authors make a case for better customer contact in business strategy planning.

Modern technological improvements in data-mining provide strategic plans, sales forecasts and manufacturing reports. Organizations become so dependent on these models that they can lose touch with reality.

Firms use all of this information to create maps—market segmentations, research reports—of how customers use their products. But these maps are poor substitutes for actual human contact. Many managers make critical decisions based on numbers, without any personal feeling for the people they serve. They fail to spot new opportunities and innovative solutions for customers.

Nike has built an entire culture that celebrates the potential for athletic greatness in each of us. The company’s headquarters resemble an athletic center; its employees take breaks for running, basketball and soccer games. The people who develop running shoes are usually runners themselves. They possess a basic intuition that cannot be captured in any market report.

Other major companies have learned the value of empathy:

  • IBM helps customers keep their information technology up and running by staying as close to them as possible.
  • Microsoft succeeded with the Xbox because it was designed for gamers by developers who love games.
  • Apple makes computers, iPhones, iPads and iPods for people who covet cool, easy-to-use products. The company’s organizational culture reflects its customers’ lifestyles.

Business happens on the street, in stores and in homes. When companies have a real connection with end users, they come up with better product designs. Harnessing the power of empathy closes the gap between abstract data and reality.

Consumers don’t buy goods based on demographics. Nobody, for example, opens his wallet because he’s a 25- to 30-year-old white male with a college degree. As people go about their daily lives, problems arise that beg for solutions. Consumers are willing to spend money on solutions that will get the job done. Your ability to empathize with them and anticipate their needs determines whether your product or service will sink or swim in the marketplace.

It’s worth noting that Sony cofounder Akio Morita and Apple’s Steve Jobs were famous for never commissioning market research. Instead, they’d just walk around the world watching what people did. They put themselves in their future customers’ shoes.

Think about it. What would be some ways you could observe actual clients using your company’s products or services? How could you walk in their shoes? I’d love to hear from you.

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