Empathy isn't just a word, and it isn’t easy


Empathy isn't just a word, and it isn’t easy

Ray Poynter
Ray Poynter
August 17, 2023
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6 tips for empathy and insights

In February, I highlighted the need for brands to focus on being Human-Centric (Why HX, Why Now?) and linked human-centricity to the three pillars of Belonging, Authenticity and Empathy. COVID-19, the lockdowns, and the issues highlighted by Black Lives Matter, have all emphasized the need to be human-centric, and the need to be empathetic.

Empathy is not just a word to use in mission and vision statements, it is a change in how we see the world, in how we relate to people, and it is not easy. Here are six tips for how you can better link insights and empathy:

1) Diversity is key

A roomful of young to middle-aged, white graduates are going to struggle to understand people aged over 65 years, they are going to struggle to understand unskilled workers, and they will struggle to understand those who do not benefit from white privilege. One of the key reasons that companies need insights and research is that customers are often very different to the people running a company. To understand other people, to understand their experiences and needs, and to understand how your brand should be reacting, you need to develop empathy with a wide range of different groups. This calls for diversity, and diversity in three key areas:

a. Diversity in your teams. If your team is not diverse, consider outsourcing part of the process to people who can add that diversity.
b. Diversity in who you are talking to. Try to avoid grouping people into broad buckets, such as over-65 years, middle-income, and families. Ensure you are reaching people of different ethnicities, orientations and circumstances.
c. Diversity in how you conduct your research. Don’t just rely on surveys, include chats, video, and ethnographic and cultural research principles.

2) Don’t dominate the agenda

When brands use insights, they typically have questions to which they want answers. For example, ‘Should the pack be larger?’, ‘Can we charge more for this feature?’, or ‘How satisfied were you with the service you received?’ However, to be empathetic, you need to provide your customers with plenty of opportunities to answer questions you haven’t asked, to raise points that are important to them, and for them to let you know how they are coping. It is important to remember that all touchpoints should provide the chance for feedback, all feedback should provide the chance for open-ended comments, and feedback should be responded to.

3) Check your assumptions

There is an old saying that ‘ASSUME’ makes an ‘ASS’ out of ‘U’ and ‘ME’. In the context of insights, this can often take the form of assuming we know what the comments, suggestions and answers from our customers mean. Unless the meaning is clear, learning to be empathetic means checking that what you think you are hearing is actually what people are trying to communicate. In ethnography, this process is referred to as ‘member checking’, re-phrasing ideas and suggestions and confirming that this is a suitable understanding of the point.

One way to do member checking is to transfer a comment into a proposed action, and check the action is desired and would meet the needs. For example, if customers said they were nervous about going to the bar to order food and drink, we might ask whether a process such as app-based ordering from their phone would be a suitable solution. Or, if we wanted to understand whether it was the bar area itself that was a problem, or the human interaction, we could contrast the response to the options 1) one at a time at the bar, 2) table service from person, 3) or app-based ordering. Or, we could ask them to suggest alternatives and then check whether they would visit (and whether they would feel safe) if their alternative was available.

4) ‘People do not rotate around brands; brands rotate around people’

This was a key point in the Hopes and Fears for 2020 I published in December 2019 and it remains key today. You can’t be empathetic if your starting point is based on you or your brand/product/service. Being empathetic has to be based on people (i.e. Human Experience, HX). Start by understanding people, find out what they need, and work out how you are going to help them. Unless you know what is going on in people’s lives, you are not going to be delivering what is needed, when it is needed, in the way it is needed.

5) Be willing to act, empathy is not sympathy

The action of brands like Nike over Black Lives Matter and the boycott of Facebook because of its profiteering from (and therefore reluctance to halt) ‘Hate Speech’ have shown the importance of evidencing empathy through action. People do not expect or want sympathy, they expect action. When customers share their views, fears and aspirations with you, they do not want kind words or sympathetic responses, they want to see your empathy evidenced by change.


6) Trust is the key benchmark

How do you know if you are being successful in being empathetic? We suggest checking to see whether trust in you, your products and your services has gone up, stalled, or fallen? In a recent post, Peter Harris (CEO of Potentiate) asks ‘What are we waiting for?’ and highlights trust as a key area where insights needs to deliver, against which it needs to measure itself, and the consequences to the insights process of not dealing with trust-related issues and threats.

Talk to us today about how to build empathy with your customers and how Insight Communities and CX Programs can help you deliver exceptional Human Experiences.

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*Please note, Platform One was formerly known as Potentiate