Empathy as a Key to Business Success

Note: this is a slight modification of a column I wrote for the Eugene Register-Guard.

My mother used to say: “put yourself in the other person’s shoes.” She gave a lot of good advice. Nowadays we call this idea empathy, but it’s the same thing.

Empathy? That doesn’t sound like business, does it? Sounds more like psychology, and what we used to call “touchy-feely” when I was in business school. And when we called it that, it wasn’t praise.

Lately, however, empathy keeps inserting its touchy-feely self into the middle of business discussions. I’m starting to see how empathy links directly to marketing, sales, product development, management, and, ultimately, business success.

No, I don’t think it’s a flashback to the late 1960s. I think it’s an idea whose time has – no, wait a minute, it’s an idea that was always there, just with different labels.

Wikipedia defines empathy as “The capacity to recognize or understand another’s state of mind or emotion.” It adds: “It is often characterized as the ability to ‘put oneself into another’s shoes’, or to in some way experience the outlook or emotions of another being within oneself.’”

Empathy Drives Strategy

Consider this example: recently a woman asked me how she might generate money from a website listing service providers, without depending on selling sponsorships or selling ads. I can’t say that I came up with a good answer, but I can say that the best hope of an answer is by putting herself in the place of the browser, first; and the listed provider, second; and figuring out how it feels to be in their shoes. What do they want? What will they pay for? What brings them to that site in the first place?

To me that’s grass roots empathy, and it’s also right at the heart of business strategy. It applies equally to new businesses and growing existing businesses. You figure out what works by walking in that other person’s shoes.

Empathy Drives Marketing

I like to think that marketing starts with understanding what people want from you. For example, it’s not just restaurant or food service: some people want fast and cheap drive-through hamburgers, others want arugula and ahi tuna served at a quiet table. Some people want one thing on a Saturday morning with a car full of kids going to soccer games, and an entirely different thing on a Friday night when they’ve left the kids with a babysitter. That’s where empathy comes into play in marketing. You have to step into the customers shoes. Understand what they want. The menu, the pricing, the service … they all have to match what the customer wants and feels. That’s empathy.

Empathy Drives Sales

And the above reminds me of another thing I’ve learned in 30 years in business: the really good salespeople listen, understand what the customer wants, and either give it to her or send her somewhere else where they think they can get it. That’s empathy again; understanding the customer’s needs. It’s not rocket science.

Empathy Drives Product Development

The best kind of product development starts with understanding a need, then goes from there to filling that need. I’ve seen that in good software, websites, automobiles … and you can go back to that restaurant example, and think about how empathy helps the one restaurant get the kids their hamburgers and fries fast, while it also helps the other restaurant give the parents a pleasant break at a different time.

Which Means, Empathy Drives Success

So there you have it: not quite the standard business school fare, but I’m thinking it’s one of those common-sense concepts that hold up on the long term. You want success in business? Learn how it feels to walk in other people’s shoes.


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  • Kendall says:

    Completely agree and as I grow older, I realize the importance of empathy in all aspects of life.

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