We all know how important it is for an organization’s leaders and employees to empathize with its customers. When people understand and care about those they serve, they solve problems more creatively and provide better service.
What’s the best way to cultivate empathy? The standard answer is to spend more time with customers. Instead of just getting to know the customer, we want employees to become the customer.
The idea is to create an embodied experience for employees, rather than just a conversation. People learn much more when they are physically engaged in an activity, not just talking about it. But you can’t just take employees through the actual customer experience. They already know it like the back of their hands; it’s too easy for them to get defensive and justify the way they already do things.
Instead, we bring people into different contexts — removed from typical day-to-day company operations — that can serve as a metaphor for what customers experience and therefore jolt employees into a more empathetic stance.
It takes time and energy to design experiences that people in your organization can take part in but we’ve found them to be a powerful way to ensure that the people truly understand their customers. Here’s how to do it.
Step 1: Gather insights. What is broken, frustrating, surprising, or uncomfortable for your customer?
Step 2: Get outside. What industry, experience, or story has similar themes and problems? Generate a range of options and pick the one that resonates.
Step 3: Get creative. Make, build, simulate, act-out, and play through the overlapping moments of your real business problem and the analogous experience that you have identified. What is the minimum viable experience that connects the two for people? Design that.
Step 4: Invite a group of people to go through the exercise and to talk about it. Usually, the actual experience is no more than an hour or two — that’s long enough for people to go through a wide range of emotions — and then we leave at least half an hour to unpack how people felt and what they noticed. The goal is for everyone to walk away with new ideas and discrete actions to take, and a plan for communicating their insights to the rest of the organization.
It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes we generate ideas to address our own needs. But in many cases, it’s the necessity of others that drives us to innovate. Empathy isn’t optional in problem-solving. It can drive creative breakthroughs.