Empathy is a crucial business skill, but there is much confusion over what we mean when we refer to empathy in a business context. We know what empathy is – understanding and sharing another’s experiences and emotions – but how can we transfer this into a business? After all, if we’re selling financial services online or manufacturing goods for resale, it might seem difficult to relate to people we possibly don’t know in this way.

Yet, the truth is, we can. In the social media age, it should even be somewhat easier.


One of the wonderful benefits of social media is that our customers are right there, talking and giving us the information we need. I’m sure many of us have heard the old business philosophy that a happy customer might tell two or three people, but an unhappy one will likely tell ten or more. In the age of social media, an unhappy person is more than likely to voice their complaints on social media and reach a lot more than ten people.

You can conduct a little experiment. Head over to your personal Facebook feed, or logon to Twitter and just take a quick look at how many posts/tweets are negative in some way. People might be complaining about something bad or annoying that happened to them that day, or they might be voicing their concerns over something going on that conflicts with their personal beliefs. One of the key things that psychologists understand is that most people want to be heard. Social media is giving them a chance to be heard.

In business, we need to listen.


In some cases, we’ll have to act after the fact. If you look up major businesses on Twitter, you’ll see that their social media teams spend more time dealing with complaints and criticisms than praise. A business with empathy at its core will respond to these complaints politely and try to resolve whatever they can as fast as they can. Occasionally, they’ll even have to take a small hit – such as offering a voucher as a goodwill gesture.

The key to remember here is that your customers complain when they feel there is something amiss. There’s a handful of people out there who complain for their own amusement, but most people simply want to make their life convenient and stress-free. The act of complaining is a sign that the business they’re dealing with has failed in some way, but it doesn’t mean that there is not still an opportunity to succeed.

In a real-world example, I have dealings with a particular tech company. An error on their end inconvenienced me somewhat one morning. I sent that company an email and within twenty minutes they had not only responded but they had fixed the problem. From my point of view, any irritation from this error was quickly erased by the polite, efficient way they addressed my issue. It makes me feel valued. It makes me feel like this is a business that cares about me; a business that is empathic to me.

Importantly, ask yourself, is your business content to simply address complaints, or is your business being proactive in limiting complaints? Treat each complaint as an opportunity to learn. If one person is expressing their pain and feeling the need to complain, then the chances are that there are others. Show empathy and try and make things easier and better for your clients and customers.


Of course, we don’t want to spend all our time addressing complaints. In an ideal world, we wouldn’t receive any complaints at all! That’s not really feasible. However, by listening to people, we can anticipate what they might complain about and address the problems before they ever reach the customer.

This should be a key part of any business’s research and development strategy in the 21st Century, but too many businesses are not actively looking for this crucial information. They develop products and services with little input from the end-user. By doing that, they risk causing irritation and annoyance.

Too often, we’re content to spend money on costly focus groups or targeted surveys rather than simply reviewing what is already out there. Imagine your business is making a new technology device – like a mobile phone or a tablet. You know what your competitors are doing, but are you considering what your potential customers are asking for?

Your potential customers will be out there. They will be discussing what makes their current device great, and most importantly, what could be improved. By considering their needs, you will be able to invest your development budget more wisely, focusing on the key features that consumers want from their device.

This may seem an arduous task but it doesn’t need to be. Have a look at product review videos on YouTube, and then read through the comments sections. Very often, you’ll find people saying “I bought [product] and like it, but…” – those “buts” could be just what you need for your next innovation!


Don’t be afraid to ask. There’s another small business that I deal with who develop a software product which I use regularly. Recently, they took the time to post the list of features for their software currently slated for development but rather than simply put out a features roadmap, they opened up a survey asking their clients which features they wanted first.

This is a fantastic step towards building trust and brand loyalty. The customer feels like they are part of the development of this piece of software. They know that the company is listening to their customer’s needs and feel that the company is responding to them. By making their polls public, they also allow their customers to know what other people are prioritising. Thus if one person’s preferred feature isn’t top of the list that person knows it isn’t the company neglecting them. Instead, they can see that the company is responding to their wider audience’s wants and needs first. This has the somewhat added advantage that the customer cannot blame the business if their most-desired feature isn’t next on the list!

If you’ve got an active social media channel, don’t just tell your customers what’s coming. Ask them what they want. If you’re delivering what they want, then your business will be more successful. You can create an emotional investment between business and customer. The benefits of this go beyond the bottom line of your business because it will also reach the hearts and minds of your customers. It will create a direct link between the two of you.

Back to psychology, in addition to wanting to be heard, many people also want to feel part of something. If you look at crowdfunding campaigns like those found on Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you’ll often find a core group of supporters who feel proud that they’ve helped a product reach the market through their contributions.

People who feel part of something in this way are also the people more likely to spread the positive word about your business, both on social media and to their friends and family.


If you seek to understand and feel what your customers are feeling, then you’re on a pathway to more success. Once your business becomes an empathy-driven business, there will be so many ways to expand and grow this philosophy, making it an integral part of your business culture.

There’s much more that can be said about the importance of empathy in business – from dealing with your people all the way to satisfying shareholders and investors. I could say so much that I may well revisit this subject at a later date.

For now, ask yourself whether your business is doing its best to build a relationship between you and your clients, or whether you’re putting up too much distance. Innovation need not simply be inventing something before anyone else but giving people what they want before anyone else.


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