Making Empathy Central to Your Customer Development Strategy



How often have you heard stories of companies launching to a flop or releasing features that are never used? Or, perhaps you’ve experienced first hand how frustrating it is when a work-critical platform isn’t responsive. More than ever, it’s important to understand what your customers want and need. No longer just the domain of startups and growth hackers, empathy-driven customer development is now an ongoing and critical function of enterprises of all sizes.

Integrating empathy into your customer development strategy and planning efforts delivers the transformative insights needed to drive higher levels of conversion, retention, engagement, and satisfaction. But what does that mean? Certainly it does not imply conjuring up emotions or neglecting the importance of data and ROI; yet it does require intentionality to allow feelings to factor into strategic decision making.

Here are a number of frameworks, activities, and outputs across strategy, service and messaging to help you empathize and share your customers’ feelings as they interact with your brand across traditional and digital touchpoints.


Customer Experience Map: A customer experience map visualizes all the interactions a customer has with a brand. But more importantly, it provides a framework that allows stakeholders to process and articulate feelings associated with a company’s offerings. Adaptive Path’s Rail Europe Experience Map highlights the importance of customer’s thoughts and feelings to designing the right experience at each stage of the buying journey. The process of developing a customer experience map itself is equally valuable as the map itself, with empathy and customer-centric thinking introduced and normalized into the strategic planning process.

Mobile Readiness Audit: According to Google’s Mobile in the Purchase Journey research, 54% of smartphone users in the United States use their smartphone to research products. An outdated mobile app or a website that is not responsive or lacks a dedicated mobile design can frustrate customers and signal a lack of concern or awareness of the importance of this channel – and dramatically lower conversions.

As it’s safe to assume that over half of prospects and customers interact with brands via mobile, it’s imperative to identify the pain points associated with customer’s goals and consider how to prioritize, optimize and format content for each small screen state (mobile, tablet, phablet). Additionally, a mobile readiness audit should analyze website performance and usability across as many mobile screen sizes and platforms as possible. User testing should aim to gain as many qualitative insights as possible into the current mobile experience.

Product and Service Innovation

Service Model Canvas: Inspired by Alexander Osterwalder’s Business Model Canvas, the Service Model Canvas facilitates a systematic process of service design using customer-centric thinking. Using the Service Model Canvas frees the team up from bright shiny object thinking that fails to apply the latest technology or trend to the needs of the customer and realities of the organization.

Seven Step Story:

No one needs your product or service. What they need is the change that your product or service allows them to make!” – Kathy Klotz-Guest

This brief exercise provides a model for creating product/service stories that validate new product/service initiatives and demonstrate empathy with your customers.


Watson Personality Insights: 

“The IBM Watson Personality Insights service uses linguistic analytics to infer cognitive and social characteristics, including Big Five, Values, and Needs, from communications that the user makes available, such as email, text messages, tweets, forum posts, and more. By deriving cognitive and social preferences, the service helps users to understand, connect to, and communicate with other people on a more personalized level.” – IBM

Watson can be used to increase empathy and improve brand messaging. For example, one exercise would be to compare the output of the messaging included in marketing and sales collateral with a sample of customers’ updates from social media. By analyzing the similarities and differences between the two, you stand to gain a new level of understanding and appreciation for their needs and values in addition to their familiar syntax.

What? | How? | Why? Method: The Institute of Design at Stanford ( has documented a number of design-thinking exercises in their bootcamp bootleg toolkit, of which the What? | How? | Why? method is most effective at driving deeper levels of observation, and empathy towards customers.

Using a photo of your customers in the field using your offering, a team will begin to list observations moving from concrete (What?), to understanding (How?), to interpretation (Why?). As Steve Blank likes to say, “There are no facts inside your building, so get outside.” A simple exercise such as this repeated quarterly can stave off the inertia towards product/organization centric thinking and ensure the customer’s needs remain visible inside the organization.

Still not sure if empathy can produce transformative results? Consider Umpqua bank, which has made customer and community service central to its brand for decades:

And the focus on individual customer service is if anything outdone by energy they pour into the community side of community banking.  Their stores (as they call their branches) are intentionally designed as community spaces. They host events (last year, more than 6,000 events in their 200 locations) from movie nights to yoga classes to small business events to art exhibits and chocolate tastings. And their Local Spotlight program features small businesses in the community – it rotates quarterly – and even sell their products for them free of charge (businesses can apply to participate – many stores are booked through 2015). – Forbes

Umpqua’s bold moves and innovative strategy emerged from a deep understanding and commitment to their customer’s needs resulting in growth from four branches in 1995 to 400 today.

Empathy is more important than ever for customer development, especially in the context of technology. Ultimately, the leaders and teams that create meaningful experiences need to engage customers with both heart and brain by understanding needs, struggles, goals and challenges. How is your team leveraging empathy in customer development?

(Image courtesy of Jesus Sanz via Shutterstock)

  • ekemery

    Couldn’t agree more. Empathy should be a fundamental part of your overall process!