Why and How to Deepen Customer Empathy

Original blog last updated: 06/24/2021

We may not spend much time talking about customer empathy in conventional business-world circles, but we should. Empathy is the ability to understand the point of view and feelings of another — to be able to walk the proverbial mile in his or her shoes. It’s the next level of mindfulness—essentially being mindful of and for others — and I believe it pays off.

Higher empathy leads to stronger financial performance, increased customer satisfaction, customer loyalty and greater innovation. In fact, HBR research suggests the top 10 most empathetic companies increased their financial value more than twice the bottom 100.

This shouldn’t be surprising; empathy is a critical skill for being able to anticipate and meet customer needs. And satisfied customers drive the success of successful companies. Earlier this month, the Business Roundtable made headlines when it formally expanded the definition of a corporation’s purpose beyond serving shareholders to providing value to all stakeholders — notably, customers, employees and communities.

This shift highlights the imperative to build your customer empathy, and strengthens the argument that acting in response to customer needs positively impacts both your team and your organization.

Isn’t Empathy Overrated?

Daniel Goleman, a leading psychologist focused on emotional intelligence, advocates that empathy alone is not enough. We need to shift from empathy to “active concern” in order to respond to customer needs. The first step is to understand how the customer feels, but the action that follows is key.

Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman states it clearly when he says, “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.” We need to tap in to how the customer feels and then be sure to act upon the insights.  

If we do this, we may be able to avoid the issues that psychologist and Yale professor Paul Bloom raised in 2016 with his book “Against Empathy.” In it, Bloom argued that empathy can lead to “selfish altruism,” an inability to see the bigger picture and long-term negative consequences. He highlights the dangers of the “spotlight effect,” where we focus on an individual’s pain rather than seeing larger strategic issues. He also notes that we have a propensity to feel the strongest empathy for those like us.

Bloom’s concept of “rational compassion,” however, may merely be splitting hairs. If we connect with a large group of diverse customers and have logical processes for prioritizing customer issues and acting upon them, we can overcome these objections.

Tap into Customer Emotions, Then Take Action

Innovation begins with empathy, and companies that pay attention to their customers have an advantage. Think about Zipcar or Apple. These businesses stay connected to their customers and anticipate what they need. They feel for their customers and then drive innovation and advantages for the company. For them and other customer-centric companies, customer empathy is a process of knowing the customer. It means listening to customer’s pains and understanding things from their point of view. Intuition isn’t enough. It takes active effort to build empathy and then dedicated action to address the pain.

Could your team be doing better building empathy with your own customers? Here are three approaches to help.

Observe, Interview, Immerse

Think like a researcher and go to where your customers interact with your products or services. Watch them. How do they behave? Think about where they go before and after. Once you have a sense of who they are, ask them about a typical day. Ask them about their pain points relative to your offering. Ask them about their thoughts, feelings, and opinions on everything surrounding your product. Listen well. Then act like a customer. Immerse yourself in their physical, emotional, and mental experiences so you can refine your offering to meet their needs. The better you know how they feel, the stronger your product can precisely meet their needs.

Create empathy maps

An empathy map is a tool to understand the customer experience and get clarity into the hearts and minds of your customers. (You can see a blueprint of one here.) The map targets customer emotions and considers customer experiences within four buckets: what they think and feel; see; say and do; and hear. It also considers the customers’ pain and potential gain. Completing a customer empathy map requires you to analyze your relationship with your customers. Do you know how they think and feel? Are you clear where they feel pain? Do you know what you are solving for? It’s important to go out and gather information if you don’t know the answers. The empathy map can work well as a follow-on activity after you’ve observed, interviewed and immersed. Be sure to answer from the customer’s true point of view rather than how you want them to feel.

image of empathy map

Think agile

Agile, a software development approach, focuses on a set of values and principles designed to satisfy customers. Departments outside of IT are embracing agile as a way of working that puts the customer at the center (even HR is going agile). Working in agile includes organizing work into customer “stories” and “epics” that are requirements written from the perspective of a customer. Using the responses from an empathy map, you can identify work that connects directly with a customer need. Organizing effort around customer empathy can be a powerful way for your team to stay in alignment with its most important goals. By using the framework below, you can ensure all effort stays rooted in the customer’s point of view:

      As a <customer functional role>, I want to be able to <customer requirement> so that


Keeping the customer in mind includes reaching out and getting feedback. Your workload may be harder to plan, but you’ll hit the nail on the head for your customer with much higher frequency. And this means satisfied customers — who turn into loyal customers. Even if your customers get frustrated from time to time, if you demonstrate a high degree of empathy they’ll stay with you even when dissatisfied.

It pays to build your customer empathy. But it’s even more critical to act. Paying attention to customer needs and then taking those first steps to address them can lead to big rewards. It’s never too late to start being better.