To be truly customer-centric, Companies need to place a higher value on empathy. Here are some ideas on how to do this and why it’s not a choice.

How much good has ever come from not being empathetic? A lot, you’d think, given the word’s wallflower existence in the corporate responsibility section of the website. Outside of people writing glossy copy, empathy is seldom mentioned or referred to as something to be implemented into practice. Or so it has been.

At the World Economic Forum in 2015, the CEO of a British bank is quoted to have said: “We all know it’s important to be empathic, but how do I galvanize 48,000 people in my UK operations — most of whom think that empathy is for wimps?”

But things are changing. Only three years later, Ryanair’s boss Michael O’Leary gave us this jewel: “If I’d known that being nicer to customers was going to work so well, I would have started many years ago.”

So why are companies waking up to this? Well, as Michael O’Leary discovered: it pays. His quote came after Ryanair’s numbers started to look up after going through a bit of a slump. The reason? Customers were getting tired of being talked down to or being called “stupid”. His mantra used to be: I make sure I’ll stay cheap, and you will book with me no matter what. Turns out it’s better for businesses to assume the customers can think for themselves.

And just what exactly are they thinking?

Really understanding customers doesn’t just reflect in more business, it is also the force behind big disruptive ideas. Think of how Uber has meticulously looked at every single touchpoint of a customer journey, from ordering, tracking, and paying to contacting drivers for lost items, splitting fares, and so on. Uber might not be the most loved company, but it’s hard to argue with its success in perfecting and redefining the taxi experience.

This isn’t empathy as a company value (which, by the way, it should be too), but empathy as a skill to make a value proposition irresistible.

Developing empathy as a corporate skill

During our programs, we often introduce empathy and ethnographic research in the context of Design Thinking. Not only does the Design Thinking process famously start with the Empathize stage, but it allows us to make sure empathy is seen as a crucial part of a process without which there are tangible risks associated further down the line. If the methodology and execution of getting user insights aren’t sound, it might come back to haunt you later. Design Thinking shows this dependency perfectly with many examples to support it.

But embracing empathy outside of the Design Thinking framework in order to make sure it infiltrates strategic decision making in every context, whether a project or goal uses these methodologies or not. Many decisions are made with a false sense of security about customer data. Empathy doesn’t start with interpreting data that has already been assembled or interpreted. To train empathy, leaders must learn to take on a beginner’s mindset. It is all about listening and observing first. Not the lack of information, but the over-reliance on data

Empathy requires Immersion. Immersion requires leaving the office.

To appreciate the potential of incorporating empathy to their skillset, leaders need to spend time discovering. Our programs follow a carefully curated learning journey that provides opportunities for immersion and emergence, the first needing divergent thinking and the latter needing convergent thinking.

To internalize the differences and advantages of these mindsets, it is necessary to stop learning theories and get inspired solely by other people’s anecdotes.

Here are three examples of how we provide impactful real-life learning experiences to get leaders to think about the power of empathy:

1. Dinner with Local Families

Especially on expeditions in Asia in destinations like Shanghai and Singapore, we send participants to experience dinner with local families. “Family” can mean large families, young couples, grandparents, new parents, etc. This not only allows participants to enjoy a local meal in a local setting but allows the participants to engage in conversation with someone out of their level of comfort. These experiences are carefully framed during the days leading up to the dinner. For our participants, these evenings often provide an eye-opening perspective of a consumer’s mindset and they produce memories that will have a much stronger emotional impact than any workshop.

2. Avatar discovery visits

Visiting stores and markets is not only useful for retailers. We often let our participants discover customer experiences from a different angle by handing out POV Cards, giving them different personas with a very particular profile, needs, and background. We often combine this by choosing to visit innovators and disruptors in order to experience a customer journey first-hand — through the eye of the consumer.

This can be adapted for every industry. In a mobility context, for example, this could mean navigating an unfamiliar city with scooters, buses, metros, ride-sharing apps, walking, and more. There is no better way to experience the Micro-Mobility Revolution than acting as a user.

3. Leave your industry

Immersive learning outside of your own industry and organization is at the heart of what we do. We conduct dialogues with thought-leaders and decision-makers whom our participants wouldn’t normally engage with during day-to-day business.

We have met with people like Dr. Shetty at his Hospital outside Bangalore who revolutionized low-cost health care and was described by the Wall Street Journal as “the Henry Ford of heart surgery”. Or the Sanitation and Hygene Director for the Gates Foundation, who spoke about the necessity to be on the ground and getting dirty in order to understand the challenges and situations of these communities.

The real authorities and game-changers in their field often don’t need to be reminded to talk about Empathy. Their stories will inevitably demonstrate the importance of empathy to both inspire and innovate.

4. Theme based social mixers

We started doing social mixers mainly to encourage intergenerational conversations around the future workforce. This meant, for example, inviting a group of millennials and rotate tables over the course of a meal in an informal setting. What makes these events a hit is the unpredictability of the insights our participants take away from it.

The format works equally well when participants are carefully selected based on an emotion or motivational theme. For example, to better understand the “power of risk-taking” in business, we set up dinner meetings of small participant groups with people who incorporate elements of risk in their everyday life. This included poker players, skydivers, stunt-doubles, stock traders, young entrepreneurs, and more. Through question cards and other facilitation tools, we encourage the groups to explore different aspects of their conversation partner’s motivation and drive: What language do they use? What narratives drive their needs and dreams?

It can be easier to adopt a beginner’s mindset when the conversation partner comes from a completely different world and similarities are hidden under the surface, to begin with.

Good leaders take time to listen

A nice side effect of spending time developing organizational empathy is that it helps leaders and teams internally too.

Collaboration becomes much more effective if people can easily switch their mindset to feel and identify with other team member’s perspectives. Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. By training to observe, listen and ask questions, we also experience empathy as a powerful tool to connect with other people and form better relationships.

Showing empathy is not just being nice and it certainly isn’t for wimps. Successful leaders understand the difference.