The Difference Between Customer Empathy and Customer Sympathy – and Why It Matters

If your feed is anything like mine, you don’t have to scroll down very far in LinkedIn or even twitter for that matter to find a consulting firm, ad agency or other kinds of B2B business touting the merits and importance of customer empathy. Well, they are right, regardless of the type of business that you are in, when you start to care at a deeper level, what can happen to your messaging, product development and service models or even how your sales associates treat and more importantly understand the customer – can change dramatically for the good.

However, empathy is about emotions and emotions, well, are messy. They are grey, your spreadsheets and projects, easier to grasp since they are black and white. Empathic innovation and application is a bit or grey.
The biggest mistake we see at The Mann Group is the difference between sympathy versus empathy – they are slightly different in emotions but hugely different in outcome. The best way we can explain it actually comes from one of our muse’s in the field, Brene Brown (the video is about 2 min long, BUT it is worth it):
We see this confusion all the time in the retail space, the associate wanting to “feel sorry” (with good intentions)  for the customer’s lack of knowledge with a product can often put their preferences or THEIR solution onto the customer. You end with a feel-good recommendation that is really not the best solution for what they need. Empathy is about accurate emotional assessment (and we know that no purchase journey is solely functional) which equal accurate actions and a customer saying “You actually GET me.” Here are three ways to start practicing empathy in the retail space:
1.  Realize you are NOT the customer and you haven’t been for a long time – This is the classic mistake. You come in with brand and solution biases to your customer’s problem. This is not to negate your deep product and category knowledge, it is just making sure you realize going in you may have some biases – they may be right and they may be wrong, but make sure that you know you have them before going to a quick prescription for customer’s need.
2.  Longer assessment, deeper understanding – As Brown said, empathy is being one with the customer and how they feel about their case they are bringing you – this demands deeper understanding which usually means not just understanding their product needs but the context that product plays within – the role of the sport or hobby on their overall life, etc. This will give you a better intuition for your recommendation.
3.  Keep some kind of visual record of your top customers, or follow them on social media – This sounds Uber weird, but empathy has a visual component to it. A study in the medical field where they tested Dr’s assessments of patients when they had a single photo with their chart versus when they had no photo yielded a 34% more accurate assessment. Since we know there is also the 80/20 rule, it makes sense to keep some kind of visual log of those that spend the most in your store.
Give some of these a practice and let us know how they move the needle on your work. Look for some more applications of the empathy practice from the Mann groups here in the spring.

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