After connecting with a few friends in the last few weeks, I’ve been thinking a bit about what makes people, and businesses (surprisingly, also composed of people!), successful. And I’m settling upon one important trait that can often get overlooked: empathy.

Empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of another, is perhaps the most important trait for any successful business. I believe it is critical to success, and look! I am not alone. A survey of 150 executives found that 80% recognized empathy as a key to success.

What’s this sorcery!? My hippie roots honed in the forests of Northern California are now recognized by business leaders? How about that.

Why Empathy

Empathy helps businesses understand and solve the needs of their market. Every single transaction in business is predicated on a customer attempting to solve a problem. Even if that problem is “I need more fun in my life,” they’re turning over their hard earned money to solve a problem. Empathizing with customers allows you to meet them where they are, understand and fully hear the problems that they are trying to solve, and adequately meet the needs of that customer.

Too often we see businesses, both large and small, creating the products they think or believe will solve a problem as they compare their model to other businesses without taking the temperature of their existing customer base, their prospects, or the market they’re trying to gain entry to. Empathy helps not only understand the problems that customers will flat out tell you they’re having, it also helps business leaders understand the problems that customers aren’t even sure they’re hearing.

One example: the iPhone. Are you old enough to remember the launch of an iPhone first generation? It entered a market full of Blackberry devices and owners who said that they’d never give up their clicky keyboards. Now you could say that an empathic person would have heard about those keyboard desires and not thought about a world beyond Blackberries. But a truly empathic person has the vision to see what a customer really needs beyond what the customer says they need. It takes a bit of intuition and empathy to get to that point of nonverbal collaboration.

Empathy creates better customer experiences. A customer-focused team can ascertain when there are issues in a customer’s experience of a product or service and solve them faster. By asking good questions, an empathetic customer service representative can meet a customer where they are and guide them through a better experience. When customer-facing personnel can act with empathy and are supported in doing so, customers get above-and-beyond solutions that create word-of-mouth marketing and happy return customers.

Empathy creates better marketing. When marketing is tied closely with customer support, customer inquiries create opportunities to create content. If one customer has a question, problem, or issue, there are likely more customers with the same issues. Marketing can help to solve those problems by creating content that gets answers quickly into the hands of customers or prospects.

Empathy creates better teams. Teams that can empathize with one another are more likely to reach out when they need assistance, they’re more likely to offer assistance, and they forge bonds of trust that create a harmonious and creative environment. These better teams answer ideas with “Yes, and…” or “What if…” compounding creative solutions to problems. These teams also make a business environment collaborative and just a lot more fun. Empathy helps you understand what makes people tick, and also helps HR teams hire better fits for an organization.

Empathy fosters leadership. The ability for leaders to put themselves in their subordinates’ shoes gives them the ability to meet their team where they are. When helping team members grow and solve problems, leaders with empathy help their teams become more successful. This empathic connection becomes a feedback loop where team members can also empathize with leadership, forging bonds of trust.

How to Encourage Empathy

  1. Ask questions. When a customer has an issue, when a prospect says something interesting, when a teammate is frustrated, more information can help an organization create better solutions. Finding that information can be as easy as asking a question. Even if you think you have the answer, or the answer is completely obvious, asking questions can create clarity and opportunities for greater creativity. At WordCamps, one of my favorite things to do is discuss how attendees use WordPress.
  2. Allow authentic space. While measurement and metrics and time savings are important, creating space for interpersonal connection creates space for innovation. Often, people will exchange niceties just to be nice while being driven towards a certain outcome during a conversation. However, creating authentic space and an opportunity for playfulness not only creates a better more authentic experience, it fosters deeper connection and more authentic awareness.
  3. Genuine consideration. Really get to know your customers, employees, employer, vendors and prospects. What makes them tick beyond interaction with your business? Show genuine interest in who they are as a human being and give them space to tell you what makes them tick, what problems they’re trying to solve, what they value most deeply, and where your genuine points of connection are.
  4. Cultivate a sense of curiosity and imagination. Can you imagine what it would be like to live like the person you’re communicating with? Perhaps they have a different value system, a different way of life, a completely different approach to problems. Spend a few moments in imagination, it also stretched your ability to be compassionate.
  5. Share your vulnerable self. Yes, you. You, that perfect person who never does or thinks anything wrong. I know you. You’ve got some vulnerability, too. By showing your vulnerable self and sharing that, you encourage others to share their own vulnerabilities and fears, which can lower resistance and develop greater empathy.

Of course, working in an organization that supports empathy from the top leadership down to the newbie customer service representative is a great place to work. But it also can lead to your success in an organization that has carved out a protective little castle in that land of 20% of executives who don’t believe in the hippie world. It can be your secret sauce, it can be your super power, and it can be the one thing that no one quite identifies that gives you insight and understanding no one else has.

Empathy also just makes you a better person to be around and generally a lot happier.

Do you have thoughts about empathy in business? Want to have a chat about it? I’d love to connect. Hit me up.

This is day 5 of #ClickPublish. Feature image photo credit goes to Helena Lopes on Unsplash.