Most people think that regularly spending your time with your customers to understand their lives better is a good thing.  We don’t disagree.  However, did you know there is a science behind why you should meet your customers?

It comes down to how you learn and, more importantly, how you empathise with people.

We’ve all been there.  Behind the glass in a viewing facility watching a focus group.  Eating the chocolate & crisps after promising ourselves we wouldn’t.  Or, two hours into a research debrief trying to grasp the key bit of new learning to inform your business objectives.  Or, reading a report.  Or a spreadsheet.  Or a dashboard.  It all provides much needed knowledge.  And we’re not knocking that.

However, that type of learning is very academic.  Not far off classroom-based learning.  It’s important and it delivers something called ‘affective empathy’.  This is vicarious empathy with your target customers based on what you’ve read or heard about them.

A different type of learning activity is to go and meet your target customers.  Ideally, in their environment.  It never fails to energise and excite as well as inform.  You can see, smell and touch their world.  You can ask your customers questions (or your competitor’s customers) why they do what they do?  Why they chose what they chose?  It’s a very hands on type of learning.  However, it’s often overlooked, on the bottom of the to do list, something you ought to do but never make time for.

This type of learning can be extremely powerful and delivers a type of empathy called ‘cognitive empathy’.

The science bit.  ‘Empathy’ is a much banded around word that often isn’t defined consistently as most people think they know what it means.  Simply put, it’s the ability to recognise and respond to the emotions of others.  For individuals who have had their empathic ability compromised, for example, those with severe autistic spectrum disorder, they may be unable to comprehend another’s mental state and, critically, to respond appropriately.  Think Mr. Spock.

Organisations whose employees don’t engage with their customers directly can be thought of as lacking empathy or, at best, only having affective empathy.  So, they are at risk of responding inappropriately to, or not understanding, the emotions of their customers.

Cognitive empathy is the conscious drive to understand another’s emotional state.  It’s you getting out of the office to spend time with customers.  Not only is it very effective, it is often more powerful and memorable as cognitive empathy experiences stay with you far longer that affective ones.

“I can still remember the homes, thoughts and attitudes of the laundry consumers I met on a rainy day in Newcastle 20 years ago but I most certainly can’t remember the last brand tracking debrief I sat through (thank God).  This sticking power is important because the more you recall stuff, the more likely it is to be in your head when you’re making decisions about the things you do for and offer your customers.”

It is more likely to influence decision making and action – which is the most important element of that dirty word ‘insight’.

A lot of research techniques used in the commercial world they have been borrowed from elsewhere.  Double-entry bookkeeping came from the monks.  Focus groups from clinical psychology.  The study of empathy too comes from psychology notably the work done by Professor Emeritus Martin Hoffman at New York University who helped determine the different types of empathy and their effectiveness.

The truth is, when it comes to learning about your customers – you should do both.  You need to commission and learn from formal market research.  But you also need to get out of the office and meet with your customers as well.

Get out and Mingle – be better connected.

Images courtesy of Stefan Cosma, Niklas Hamann & Stephan Dawson on Unsplash.


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