What is customer empathy? 9 industry experts weigh in

By Paige Musto | December 13, 2018
What is customer empathy? 9 industry experts weigh in

The Age of the Customer has arrived and embedded itself across every industry. Customer empathy—something that may have seemed like a buzzword or lip-service in the past, has proved to be a competitive differentiator.

Customer empathy, like customer experiences, can mean different things to different people, disciplines, and industries. Is there a common thread that everyone can agree upon? Is there an industry standard when it comes to understanding customer empathy?

In keeping with our curious and experimental nature, we decided to go straight to the experts. We asked nine professionals, including industry experts, thought leaders, customers, and influencers what customer empathy meant to them.

Here’s what they had to say:

Dom Nicastro, Staff Reporter, CMSWire


"Customer empathy means completely—and unfailingly—rewriting the rules for each unique customer. No one cares about your business processes. Change them for customers. Always.

One poor experience can bring down a Fortune 500 company today, and an undergrad technology student is writing code for an app right now that might put you out of business. It's inexcusable today to not demonstrate customer empathy—in a digital platform informed by data and insights, and in good, old-fashioned face-to-face customer service scenarios."

John Koetsier, Journalist, Analyst, Futurist and Dreamer


"Customer empathy means walking the same path your customers are taking: living their pain, feeling their needs, and deeply understanding the solutions that will work. That's why the best products are often built by people who are creating solutions for their own challenges."

Douglas Karr, CEO of DK New Media, Founder of MarTech.Zone

"Customer behavior continues to show that purchases are significantly impacted by personal motivations. Gaining time and expertise, building influence, feeling secure, sharing in generosity, improving health, and fulfilling our lives’ meaning impacts every purchase—regardless of whether B2C, B2G, B2B, or B2B2C. Empathy is the ability of brands to tap into the customer emotions associated with those acquisition and retention factors, furthering their ability as a brand to be an indispensable part of their customers' identities and their lives."

John Boitnott, Writer, Inc., Entrepreneur, Business Insider, Digitalist Magazine

"Customer empathy is how much you truly care about the feelings and experiences of your customers or clients. In my interaction with businesses and brands here in Silicon Valley, I see it show up (or not show up) all the time. It's there in the way servers interact with dining patrons. It's there in how customer service team members handle phone requests from customers. It appears even in the way your sales team pitches a prospect. It all comes down to some simple truths. If you care about my personal situation and make an effort to be sure I’m having a positive experience, I’ll to feel closer to the brand and want to buy more from you in the future."

Bob Thompson, Founder and CEO, CustomerThink

"Customer empathy means employees showing that they genuinely care about customers—especially when things go wrong. We live in a world that moves fast. Customers want things easy and efficient, for sure. But what they crave is engaging with brands that don’t treat them as a transaction. Emotions are the biggest driver of customer loyalty, and empathy is one good way to create positive feelings. Use it!"

Varun Khanduja, Senior User Researcher, FedEx Services

"Customer empathy is a two-step process. The first step involves listening, understanding and feeling the pain or joy of a human even before they evolve as a customer. The first step concludes when a team has a visceral feeling of knowing the human-centric journey of the individual. The second step involves integrating context of their goals associated with your product and fitting in their overall journey for the team to develop task, product-based empathy. A product developed with empathy has the potential to make a human feel more than a number for the organization delivering the product.

Devin Harold, UX Research Manager, Verizon

"Customer empathy is all about understanding your customers on a deeper level; who they are, what they're going through and what their motivations are. It's about delivering a delightful experience which anticipates customer needs and meets them before they're needed because you understand the problem's impact. Empathy is built by gathering deep insights through real observations, face-to-face conversations and stepping into your customers' shoes through empathy building exercises which stretch beyond your hypotheses."

Mandy Drew, Qualitative Researcher, AI + Conversational Machine Learning, Capital One

"By walking with our customers throughout their journey, we can really feel their emotions as they encounter joys and struggles. This is essential to discovering opportunities where my team can leverage their creativity and expertise to create meaningful experiences customers find useful, usable, and enjoyable—products customers will actually use because they enhance their daily lives.

As a UX researcher, I’m responsible for building and fostering that empathy among our designers, product managers, and leadership. It’s up to me to represent our customer's joys and struggles in a way that is meaningful, compelling, and sticks with everyone as they think of creative ways to solve our customer's challenges.

One of my most important roles is “interpreter.” As a UX researcher, I have the unique opportunity to focus almost exclusively on watching customers interact with our designs. I’m able to watch customers' total interactions with our designs, in context, for 20 to 60 minutes at a time. The rest of my team doesn’t have that luxury, so it’s up to me to find the perfect examples of issues I see our customers face, interpret the findings appropriately, and communicate those results in a compelling way so I can evoke the appropriate feeling of empathy from each member of my team."

Justin Threlkeld, Senior User Experience Designer, asurion

"Customer empathy means listening and working to understand the real problems and challenges facing our customers, who turn to us for help and support when technology has gone a bit wrong. It means putting ourselves daily in the shoes of someone who maybe just watched their family photos, appointment book, bank teller, boarding pass, and primary mode of communication sink to the bottom of the lake and thinking about what that person, in that moment, needs."

Empathy is the new Golden Rule

The beauty of making empathy part of your company culture and development process is that it doesn’t need much defining—it’s something everyone can understand. Similar to the idea of a Golden Rule—following a set of standards everyone expects, like treating one another as you’d hope to be treated—customer empathy translates across industries, organizations, teams, and individuals. It’s a universal language that everyone can understand.

Having customer empathy isn’t about a specific strategy. It can’t be quantified by a formula or taught by experts. It’s something that speaks to the core of every company attempting to achieve it. Organizations that truly place their customers at the center of everything they do, and consistently rely on human insights to inform and drive business decisions, will fundamentally and naturally empathize with their customers.

Additional resources on customer empathy:

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About the author(s)
Paige Musto

Paige is the VP of Corporate Marketing at UserTesting, where she manages brand and growth marketing.