Organizational empathy: Creating a more customer-centric company

Organizational empathy: Creating a more customer-centric company

Author: Jim Longo

Editor’s note: Jim Longo is chief strategy officer at Seattle-based market research firm


It’s easy to become myopic in the world of business. Reducing customers to statistics and always eyeing KPIs is only natural; success lies in the numbers. Yet the more insular an organization gets, the more divorced it can be from the everyday reality of consumers lives – the thoughts and aspirations they hold, and the motivational factors that drive their spending habits.


After a year of pervasive sickness, social isolation, economic hardship and an underlying mental health crisis, it’s not enough to just sell a product. Where a brand stands, and where a consumer aligns with that position, is increasingly important. Social awareness is essential for modern brands, and arriving at that awareness needs to be a dialogue both internally and with consumers themselves.


Empathy is an organizational imperative. Now is a crucial crossroads for brands to reconnect with consumers on a human level in order to better understand what they need from brands right now. But consumer empathy isn’t just a task laid at the feet of brand development and market research teams; it needs to be an initiative woven into the fabric of the brand itself, starting at the C-level and reverberating through every level of an organization.

What we talk about when we talk about empathy

Empathy is not an easy concept to explain, because it’s easy to shortcut. Of course, we all know that other people have feelings. Consumer empathy isn’t merely a recognition of customer opinions; if it were, establishing consumer empathy on an organizational level would be as easy as instituting a survey program. True empathy is understanding how consumers feel, and aligning an organization around that understanding.


With that understanding, a brand can arrive at the emotional core of what motivates consumers. To quote Maya Angelou, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


Arriving at organizational empathy is as easy to say as it is difficult to execute: brands need to talk to their customers. They need to talk to them frequently. And they need to be able to learn from those conversations to influence better messaging and product development that aligns with those conversational insights.

Creating a more customer-centric company ultimately pays dividends too. According to a Deloitte study, “client-centric companies are 60% more profitable compared to companies not focused on the customer.”


Further, a landmark research study conducted by Kantar Vermeer – i2020 – which interviewed 10,000 insights professionals, concluded that CEOs from overperforming companies were in more frequent contact with their insights teams: “Insights leaders in overperforming organizations report to these senior executives more than twice as often as their counterparts in underperforming organizations do (29% vs. 12%).”

Instituting a company-wide consumer empathy program

The reason building a consumer empathy program needs to be woven into the ethos of an organization – and adopted by everyone from the CEO to the most junior members of a brand development team – is that it’s easy to ignore when it’s a simple mandate. When a C-level executive absconds responsibility for consumer empathy, it loses relevance to the rest of the organization.


Consumer empathy programs center around customer conversations. The first step in instituting a program is identifying those within an organization who would be best suited to engage with customers on a personal level; think of the person at the company who does well at cocktail parties. These conversations should be as broad as possible, perhaps centered around the product category itself, not necessarily the brand. And the conversation should be loose and informal – it’s not an interview.

Examples of strong empathy-driven brand-to-customer conversations include:

  • Asking the participant to select images that portray their experience with the brand/product.
  • Using a projective experience – for example, asking the consumer if the user experience was like driving a car, which car it would be and why. This strategy can help to articulate the respondent’s feelings. You can also share other respondents’ answers to see if similar reactions arise.
  • Fill-in-the-blank exercises are an easy strategy to see what the consumer liked and didn’t like.

These early adopters can then share their findings with other members of the team via recordings of the conversation. Having a consumer opinion validate a proposed strategy can make a powerful case. Once other team members see not only how little of an investment a consumer conversation can be, but how impactful the insights are, it builds momentum within the organization. With early adopters, thought leaders and C-level executives within a company on board, a true customer-centric organization can take root.

Using insights to humanize consumer outreach

Creating an institutional imperative toward customer empathy that permeates every level of an organization provides brands with the insights needed to market to people, not just consumers.

Humanizing the consumer outreach process allows brands to align themselves with the values their customers – and potential customers – hold true. And, as trends change, these programs offer a level of agility to adapt to the changing times, yet always remaining centered around the thoughts and feelings of the consumer.


How are you measuring your customer’s perspective or managing their experience?  We have the tools to do just that via Mystery Shopping, Customer Surveys or Competitive Audits just to name a few.