Questions and conversations. The way to customer empathy and improving your business.

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Imagine you have a product that used to sell quite well but now is waning. Sales have been declining over the last several years and it looks like people have moved to other things instead of your product. If you’re like most business people, you begin looking strategically at how you can change people’s minds or how you can market it differently. But there’s a problem, this traditional thinking comes from a company-centric view based on self focus —we need sales so we need to create ways to get customers to buy. It is based on what the company needs instead of what customers want.

There is a better way, a way that will lead to innovation and possibly whole new revenue streams. And this better way begins with a question, “What’s the real problem?” Why is it that less people want the product? Is it unfashionable? Is it unhealthy? Is it difficult to use? Is it no longer relevant? By applying this approach, you may well find an opportunity staring you in the face that you can capitalize on, but by myopically looking only at different strategies for coercing people into buying something that they don’t want, you are probably looking at an almost certain death of the product and possibly your business.

This approach, however, requires that you learn what your customers care about and what they want. And learning that, by the way, is not available on a spreadsheet. There are no numbers that will give you firm evidence of what’s going on in your customers’ heads. You simply have to get out on the streets and start asking people questions. And by asking questions, I don’t mean a survey or a focus group, I mean conversations. Find people in bars, at kids’ sporting events, virtually any social gathering, and start talking to real living human beings to find out what is relevant to them. What is it that concerns them? What are their needs? What works with your product and what doesn’t?

These conversations are casual, no clipboard, laptop, or tablet required. And you don’t need a list of approved questions that have gone through a vetting process and are worded just so. Just talk to people. Get their thoughts and come back and relay what you heard. It is only then that you will know where to go with your product. You may find you just need to package things differently or maybe do some cosmetic work, or you may find you need to rethink your product in the context of a usage you never considered. With a few tweaks, additions, or redesigned elements though, you may have a whole new market.

The key is getting outside of your own narrow viewpoint to begin seeing with your customers’ eyes. This my friends is empathy and empathy is what business sorely needs for making progress in the 21st century. As customers have access to more and more perspectives, they have ever changing wants and needs. What was a necessity yesterday is an afterthought today. Keeping your finger on the pulse of your customers is critical in a way never seen before. Thus, putting yourself in their shoes and understanding them —empathy— is a critical skill for long-term success.

So, what can you take away from this? If only one thing, I hope it’s to see your customers as the center of your business and to always learn from them about what they need instead of thinking about what your business needs. Self-focused thinking turns into unethical coercion and persuasion tactics, whereas customer-focused empathy delivers the things that help people solve their problems. That makes your work a meaningful service, and meaningful things are things that last. Think about how you can begin asking your customers questions and having conversations. Think about how you can get into the shoes of your customers and see what their lives are like because adding value to those lives is what your business is here for. 

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