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Empathy as a competitive advantage

Earlier this year, I attended the Sirius Decisions 2018 Summit. For those firms seeking a framework to help them plan their digital transformation, the summit didn’t disappoint. With well over two hundred sessions, delegates could choose form a wide range of topics grouped into four main streams: account-based marketing, channel marketing, portfolio (product) management, and sales strategy and operations. The sessions included presentations from Sirius Decisions (SD) staff covering most of their 14 different frameworks, SD framework and partner technology case studies presented by their customers, and several motivational keynotes from SD management and outside speakers.

The highlight of the show was the presentation from world famous photographer and philanthropist Platon, whose images of the rich and famous adorn the covers of Time, Wired, Vogue, New York, Newsweek, Esquire, Rolling Stone, Variety, Vanity Fair, EQ, and many other well-known magazines. He described the conversations he had with several historic figures while working to capture the essence of their personalities. His photographic portraits include Putin, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gaddafi, Steven Hawkins, at least six U.S. presidents, Michelle Obama, Ted Kennedy, Mohammed Ali, Edward Snowden, and over 100 world leaders from other nations, to name a few. He is also very active in the field of civil and human rights. The theme of his talk was empathy.

Empathy is certainly a compassionate capability that we should all strive to use, but Paton was being more than just caring towards his subjects. He wanted to produce work that they and his sponsors, the magazine publishers, would be very pleased with. He wanted to portray his subjects in ways that indicated who they were and what they stood for. In doing so, he has created a uniquely powerful and therefore very competitive, body of work.

Platon described how he used empathy in his photographic work, researching each subject in depth so that he would be able to converse with them on topics of common interest. His brief conversation with Putin was centered around Putin’s love for the music of the Beatles. He interviewed Edward Snowden in a hotel room in Moscow and discussed his reasons for leaking top secret documents, resulting in a picture of Snowden, who considers himself a patriot, wrapped in the Stars and Stripes.

The other non-customer keynote speaker was Molly Bloom. She recounted her activities running a high-stakes poker game for very wealthy business, sports and media personalities. By listening carefully to each player’s conversations, empathizing with their needs, and exceeding their expectations, she moved the game from a dingy basement location to a plush 60th floor penthouse apartment while raising the minimum stakes from $50,000 to $250,000 and had even more people clamoring to play! I’m sure if you asked Molly if she was trying to please her players, the answer would be “absolutely”—but the goal wasn’t just about relationships, it was about money and running the best (and most expensive) game in town! You’ll have to watch the movie if you want to see how it all turned out!

Empathy for our customers is a necessary component of success in today’s ultra-competitive marketplace. We need to meet customers’ expectations and for that we need to understand what those expectations are. But empathy can take us further. Understanding stated needs and expectations is simply the price of entry; winning requires exceeding customer expectations in ways that are unique. The more distinctive, exceptional, and in-line with customer aspirations we are, the more competitive and successful we will be. Think for a moment about buying that ideal present for your spouse or partner. You don’t just give them what they need, you try to delight them with the most perfectly appropriate gift.

Empathy is particularly important when thinking about the key steps required for digital transformation – digitizing the channels to market, customer transactions, and internal processes. Each of these can have a dramatic effect on customers’ experience. For example, finding the right balance between personalization and creepiness, making transactions frictionless without abusing PII (personally identified information), simplifying and speeding up end-to-end processes without putting pressure on customers or compromising on security, and defining products and solutions that satisfy aspirations and unstated needs all help you to provide the best experience for your customers.

Companies who put themselves in their customers’ shoes and can imagine the impact of new capabilities and approaches, i.e. those who can empathize with their customers, are not only be able to keep pace with changing expectations, but also gain strong competitive advantage and market share. Examples include Apple with the iPod and then iPhone, Quicken Loans with Rocket Mortgage, and Uber with ride sharing. These brands thought about what customers might enjoy and created products and experiences that disrupted their respective industries.

Empathy probably isn’t a word that historically came to mind when thinking of business, but it has quickly become a key piece of a competitive strategy. How empathetic are you?

If you’re interested in better understanding your customers and their needs, we can help you turn information into insight.

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