Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Empathy for the devil

I couldn't pass this up, it was just too perfect. For those of you old enough, or forced to listen to enough "classic" rock, you are familiar with the Stones Sympathy for the Devil. If you aren't familiar with this particular piece of sonic candy, get yourself off to iTunes or your favorite MP-3 site and download it.

So, what's puzzling you is the nature of my post.

I've been reading a new book that describes some of the trials and tribulations of innovative types in non-innovative companies. One of the points the author makes is that innovative types have to work with the "tried and true" people who want six decimal place proof of everything. Clearly for most innovative concepts that's nearly impossible. Another point is made that ultimately, the only way to create something compelling and new is to radically understand the customer or user. This, naturally, lead me to the concept of empathy for the user, which led me, in some dark workings of my mind, to Empathy for the devil, since most of us consider customers or users as particularly distasteful people we have to deal with because they purchased our products or services, rather than the drivers and predictors of the next big things.

Since many firms often treat their customers as the devil, they don't have much empathy or understanding of their needs. If, on the other hand, we treat our customers and users as partners, or even friends and colleagues, it may become easier to have empathy and understanding for their needs. It's only when we truly seek to understand customer needs, wants, frustrations and challenges that we can discover and create new products and services. The book goes on to state that:

It's almost impossible to design something compelling for someone you don't respect or wish to understand.

So we need to decide to have some empathy for the devil (our prospects and customers) before we can truly understand his or her needs, and only when we respect our customers enough to engage them in real discussions and interactions can we create some interesting new products and services. Otherwise, we'll ignore our customers, give them what we think they want, and explain away the failures as a "lack of understanding" or "lack of knowledge" or "lack of vision" on the part of our customers. And eventually, those customers will leave us, since we don't respect them and don't create anything relevant and new.

Who is responsible for customer empathy at your firm? Shouldn't this be one of the most important roles - engaging customers and trying to understand their needs and challenges? Instead, most senior executives NEVER meet a customer. How can you empathize with someone you never meet? Perhaps we as customers need a spokesperson to reach out to the firms who offer us products and services, to act on our behalf and draw attention to our wants and needs. It's fairly clear that most firms don't know how to interact with consumers in any meaningful way. Perhaps it's time to turn the tables, and take the mountain to Mohammed.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 8:28 AM


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