Intellect. Imagination. Empathy. 3 Keys to Customer Intimacy

Intellect. Imagination. Empathy. 3 Keys to Customer Intimacy
Corporate business consultant Cindy Barnes explores how we can develop true empathy and become better at knowing, feeling and acting upon our customers’ needs.

These days, everyone talks about being customer centric and developing better and deeper customer relationships, yet few become truly outstanding in these areas. Customers know they have problems, but asking them about those problems and designing solutions to fix them is missing the point. During my many years as a business consultant and as a therapist practising transactional analysis, I’ve seen that people often don’t know what their real problems are. They know where the immediate pain is, but this is often just a symptom of the real, much deeper concern. We all want a quick fix, but it takes time, patience and perseverance to uncover the heart of an issue. Until you get to that point, any attempt at offering or designing a solution may just be applying a Band-Aid to a broken bone.

Our company Futurecurve serves a wide range of companies, including corporates. As a trusted consultant, I need to see and understand my customers’ worlds better than they do. This demands intellect, imagination and – most of all – empathy:

  • Intellect: I need to collect and weigh up all the data – hard data and soft data, facts and figures, emotions and behaviours. There’s no shortcut to this, as the big-data-analytics people would sometimes have you believe with their software and apps. Big data is just one of the many necessary inputs. Softer data is essential too.
  • Imagination: I need to take all this data and imagine what it must be like to be my customers’ customer.
  • Empathy: I need to understand their businesses and their customers’ businesses, so I can help my customers see the world through their customer’s eyes.

Really getting under the skin of a customer issue means looking at all the data and experiencing what that problem is like for them – smelling, touching and tasting what their environment is like and how they operate within it. That means immersing yourself in the problem and using empathy to imagine and feel what it must be like.

Understanding and Developing Empathy

Empathy broadly takes three different forms. These are:

  • Cognitive empathy – Where I know what you are thinking
  • Emotional empathy – Where I feel what you are feeling
  • Compassionate empathy – Where I act upon what the other person is thinking and feeling, with their interest at heart, not mine

Empathy is key to customer intimacy, and is an increasingly important arena in business today. But how empathetic are you? The following is a selection of questions from common empathy tests:

  • When you see someone who isn’t as well off as you, do you feel bad and worry for them?
  • Do you get emotional unexpectedly, such as when you hear about a distant tragedy?
  • When someone you know upsets you, do you try to put yourself in their shoes and understand why they behaved that way?
  • Do you enjoy imagining what life would be like as someone else, such as your boss or a friend?

The more strongly you say yes to questions like these, the more empathetic you are. If these traits don’t sound like you, you may need to work on your empathising skills.

Making Empathy Work in Your Organisation

As a skill, empathy cannot work in isolation. For empathy to have meaning and impact, it needs to work in conjunction with intellect and imagination. Leading organisations that want to be truly customer centric and develop greater customer intimacy will actively:

5 Ways to Make Empathy Work in Your OrganisationView and and Re-pin in this Infographic on Pinterest.

  • Cultivate empathy as a skill, helping their people to understand the importance of empathy and how to apply it successfully.
  • Use empathy to imagine what their customers think and feel. This stops the organisation believing that its view of the world is the only one that’s valid. What concerns you as an organisation may be a million miles from the issues your customers are wrestling with.
  • Use empathy to probe and dig to uncover the real issues. Having determined what your customer’s immediate pain is, consider the underlying cause – the broken bone beneath the obvious surface cut.
  • Use empathy to develop insights by seeing what others don’t. This needs to be based on robust customer research, to ensure that your insights are grounded in reality and not just your guesses about what your customers want.
  • Use imagination to develop the best, most insightful solutions. As my friend David England tells me, “I heard a story about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Before he designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge, he had himself hauled across the Avon Gorge in a barrel. He experienced the gap for himself before considering how it might be bridged. With this experience of the gorge, he was able to conceive the bridge in his imagination. So what is more real, the external form of the bridge or the concept upon which that form relies? Certainly the concept has stood the test of time. Everything begins in the imagination, even the Clifton Suspension Bridge.”

What about YOU?

How do YOU use imagination, insight and empathy to develop closer relationships with your customers?

I’d love to know. Please share your own thoughts, experiences and strategies in the comments below.

Cindy Barnes
1 July 2014

FROM THE EDITOR: From a 7 Graces perspective, empathy is a vital aspect of the Grace of Connection. Read more articles about the Grace of Connection HERE. Read more articles from Cindy Barnes HERE.


Cindy-Barnes-TwitterCINDY BARNES (MBA) is a business and psychology consultant with a background in engineering, product and service innovation, marketing, business development and leadership. She is qualified as a counsellor in Transactional Analysis and is the co-author of the bestselling book, Creating and Delivering Your Value Proposition. As an engineer, Cindy has created, developed and sold many leading edge products and services. She ran large-scale, unionised automotive component factories for Smiths Industries, and led research and development for Panavision, developing a leading-edge product which is still their most profitable to date. Later, she led marketing and business development for Capgemini and co-created a new business unit that had sales of 83m and a pipeline of 309m in 12 months from a zero start. In 2003 she founded the consultancy ‘Futurecurve’, which helps companies navigate from a product ‘push’ focus to a true, sustainable customer ‘pull’ focus, enabling them to out-perform their peers by delivering genuine value to customers. Customers include global corporations, governmental organisations and not-for-profits. She is passionate about nature and sustainability and supports local environmental groups and social enterprises. She is also a graduate of the 7 Graces Foundations of Ethical Marketing Course and active member of the 7 Graces Community.

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