We’ll define “the skill of empathy” as the ability to see through someone else’s eyes and recognize how she is feeling. This doesn’t include having emotions about the person; it’s being able to recognize and understand the feelings that they must be having. When you use the skill of empathy to look through a customer’s eyes, you can see what they see and recognize how they feel. (The word “sympathy” is more closely associated with being concerned for another person, and is more aligned with the feeling of compassion.)
Those companies that have made the greatest impact on the world have used the skill of empathy to define themselves. They’ve looked carefully at what customers want and found ways to meet those needs. Sometimes, entrepreneurs take what they know how to do, hang a shingle, and wait for the customers to arrive. But those companies that carefully examine customers’ emotions and translate those needs into clearly defined offerings have a much easier time attracting and retaining a solid customer base.
Take hair styling, for example. Most people need to get a haircut on a regular basis, but there are many different emotional needs that are addressed within that one service. Some people consider it a chore and just want to get it over and done with as quickly as possible. Some people use a haircut as an opportunity to pamper themselves. Some people want the stylist to tell them what looks best, others have very clear ideas about how they want to look. Some people want a football team logo cut into buzzed hair or purple streaks in a modern, asymmetrical cut — these customers see a haircut as an opportunity for self-expression. A single suite of services is used to meet all of these psychological needs. The stylist that most clearly identifies these needs and defines his brand accordingly will be the one most likely to attract and retain that subset of customers.
Those companies that define and satisfy psychological needs also have an easier time establishing and clearly defining a brand in the minds of potential customers. An entrepreneurial barista probably understands that customers aren’t spending hours in a café just to drink coffee — they also want a cool place to hang out. Beer manufacturers that understand the connoisseur mindset may choose to provide a specialized “craft” product that appeals to an epicurean personality. A shoe store owner that recognizes a self-indulgent mindset in her customers can provide cold champagne as a way of making the trip to her store a luxury in itself. In almost every industry, from retail clothing to auto repair to child care, entrepreneurs have found ways to appeal to a set of emotional needs and craft offerings to meet those needs.
Arlene opened a small antique shop, and business was pretty good. But she kept noticing that her customers fell into two different psychological types: those who were on a mission to buy low and sell high, either in online marketplaces or auctions, and those who bought antiques for a love of history. The customers who were in the resell mindset were not particularly good customers, always haggling to the point of exhaustion. They tested Arlene’s patience and lowered her profit margins, and she wasn’t particularly interested in doing anything to encourage them. But those customers with a love of history could make her day. They returned regularly, made purchases without complaining about price, and they loved engaging in conversation, which was a fun way for Arlene to engage with her customers.
Arlene realized that what these customers loved the most were her stories and bits of trivia. Arlene began promoting specific evenings in the store where historians would be given a platform to describe a particular facet of history and present merchandise. An evening entitled “Going to the Bathroom Hasn’t Always Been Easy” featured a professor with a good sense of humor discussing chamber pots and antique plumbing fixtures. “Shoes: The Least Fashionable Accessory” gave attendees a glimpse into a time when the idea of having dozens of pairs was unthinkable for all but the very rich, and practical footwear was profoundly important. These informational evenings provided the stories that Arlene’s customers wanted and a chance for her to present newly available merchandise to a specific audience of potential buyers. By using the skill of empathy to examine customers’ emotional needs, she was able to engage the audience she most wanted to attract.