When it came time for my third session at the Professional BusinessWomen of California's Conference, none of the options really stood out to me as relevant for my career or personal growth, so I chose the topic covering a bit about how our brains work: Wired to Care.
Dev Patnaik, author of Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy, presented on this topic, which was surprisingly fascinating! He talked about the importance of empathizing with your customers and the people in your organization in order to prosper as an individual and as a business.
He started out by telling us the Xbox story and how Microsoft had set out to crush PlayStation II. They assembled a large team of game playing, young software engineers and gave them free reign to design, in their opinion, the best game system out there. These developers suddenly found themselves in their dream job, making game systems for themselves! They knew just what to develop, because they were the customer base. The system did it job, selling millions of units. Microsoft saw this as a huge success.
When Microsoft decided to take on the iPod, they took that *same* team that did such a great job with the Xbox to work on the Zune. The problem is, these guys didn't understand who they were developing for. When interviewed later, they noted they were just implementing what was on the PowerPoint slides, not taking any risks or making major changes to the design - because they didn't really understand the end user. It wasn't them.
Mr Patnaik went on to outline the major aspects of growth and innovation: empathy, creativity, and execution.
He talked about a visit he had to Harley Davidson and one of the first thing he noticed is that the parking spots at the front were marked "No Cages"; that is, no motorcycle rider jargon for no cars. All of the best parking spots were reserved for motorcycles. Many of the employees, particularly those higher up, are riders themselves - and not just weekend riders, but men and women that use a motorcycle as a primary means of transportation, folks that went to rallies, people that really knew what the customer wanted, because they are their own customer.
Similarly at Nike, the campus is full of gyms, tracks, pools, climbing walls, etc. All of their buildings are named after great athletes - they are surrounded by this day and night. They are encouraged to try out the new gear and provide feedback on it. I don't have to tell you how successful Nike is at selling athletic gear. This is about where Patnaik mentioned that empathy goes beyond what you have direct experience with and how even Nike's cricket line is sucessful, even though that is not a sport played in the US, where Nike is based. They understand and relate to all of their customers, not just the ones that are exactly like them.
In contrast, Patnaik talked about a visit he had with a senior executive in marketing for Delta Airlines. This fellow started out the conversation with Patnaik saying that "Airline travel in America is great!" which, frankly, surprised Patnaik (and everyone in the room for this session!) After spending an hour talking this particular executive, Patnaik discovered why he didn't see any issues with air travel today: When it was about 40 minutes before his flight, his administrative assistant would call him down to a private shuttle bus for Delta employees, which took the executive to a private entrance to the aiport for Delta executives, where he waited in no lines, crossed the tarmac and boarded into first class moments before the door closed. This is a far cry from the normal experience the rest of us have flying today: expensive shuttles that are often late, or begging a friend to take us to the airport, long lines to check in, long lines for security, expensive food & water beyond the gate (which you have to buy because you won't get any on the plane), long wait for boarding that comes with pushing and shoving from folks who don't care what group number they're in, etc, etc.
Patnaik mentioned that Delta spent $250,000 on a survey to find out how their custmers really felt about flying today - something they could've done themselves as part of their regular job if they didn't take advantage of the special perks available to them.
At Jump Associates, the company Patnaik founded, they actually track how well they think companies are going to do based on their empathy they have for customers, called the Empath-O-Meter.
One way to see you have a clear empathy problem is when you discover that your business uses different words for your product (or components) than your customers. Patnaik went on to say that American automotive manufacturers call the dashboard the "instrument panel", and while we may know what they are talking about, the awkward word choice is jarring when we hear it. Worse, a candy manufacturer called their candy bars: "filled bar with inclusions". That sounds like it needs medical treatment ;)
The main issue here is that if you don't have tangible experiences, you will lose touch with your customer base.
Early in the conversation, Patnaik mentions that he prefers using the word empathic over empathetic, because the latter sounds too much like pathetic and the two words are synonyms. Taking his lead, two days after the conference I was at another event and our table was brainstorming and I decided to use the word empathic. About 2 minutes into this brainstorming, a woman at the table said, "Um, you're using the wrong word. That's not a word. You mean empathetic." So much for using what I learned at this conference ;-)
The key points that I did take away were that empathy is not a special occasion thing - it needs to happen every day as a natural part of your existence and business. Empathy doesn't mean "I understand people like me" - it means, "I understand people."