4 Types of Empathy for Best-Case Products & Partnerships
May 31, 2019
A Holistic Approach
Evaluating work objectives and product or service execution from the user point of view? That’s standard. Understanding what drives your partner’s business goals? Part of the process. Explaining why empathy is needed in the professional arena is an old hat–worn with comfort and confidence.
What’s lacking are the less obvious types of empathy and how they all play important roles throughout the product lifecycle. These more obscure types of empathy can run alongside end user or business needs, but they also consider other stakeholders, internal teams, and even you, individually.
Your teams want to experience the highest levels of trust, collaboration, and production with every project. Your company desires established long-term partnerships that evolve instead of end. And the best way to have it all is to promote holistic empathetic practices.
4 Types of Empathy
For companies and teams that work across the entire product lifecycle, empathy stems from the Kick-off/Discovery phases and branches out as the product takes shape. With design, development, QA, and beyond, the amount of understanding and vision for fluid conditions and expectations can be overwhelming.
Ultimately, there are four perspectives to keep at the forefront, throughout every input and output stage of product development (aka digital transformation).
The most straight-forward form of empathy (not to say it’s the easiest) is user empathy. A successful product, or brand, takes the time to understand the user and address their needs. Research, usability studies, and market analysis support this effort. From start to finish, the user presence should always be felt in a design and build environment.
UX designers tend to excel in this type of empathy because it’s a direct dependency for their success. For example, if a usability tester finds a significant flaw in an app experience that makes it crash, it’s necessary to make the fix. But, more importantly, you must evaluate the consequences of these flaws and use this opportunity to add more value based on user learnings. Having a higher level of user empathy fuels more than efficacy–it inspires delight and brand preference.
External Business Empathy
A great partnership often leads to a product that delivers the most value. A primary measurement of success for service providers is the amount of effort required on the other side of the table. You strive for the least amount of effort from your business partner, the smoothest, happiest path. The ideal B2B relationship mirrors the ideal P2C (product to customer) relationship: a natural fit.
After confirming the project, sales passes the baton, often with a high-level, general understanding of your partner’s business environment. Program and project managers often take the lead with partner empathy, but they can’t be the only ones doubling down on this effort. Your teams have to recognize all of the requirements and dig into the current circumstances of a company (and, at times, an existing product). And that’s just the beginning.
Then you go a level deeper to fully immerse yourself in product owner intentions and expectations. This may (or may not) include some of these sensitive items:
Funding dependencies (present or future)
Board expectations and buy-in
Financial constraints (predicted or hypothetical)
Walking around in their shoes, in this case, means taking the time to uncover every possible “IF…THEN” situation on their side. It means gathering as much intel to better inform your internal teams before they start the work, as well as continually syncing up on changes and context throughout the product lifecycle.
Internal Team Empathy
You need to know your company as well as you get to know your business partners. That sounds small, but it might be the greatest empathy challenge within the professional arena. Designing and building experiences for your partners that deliver continuous user delight and value is what you do–but how you do it is all about knowing who you are as a team, company, and brand.
Internal team (or company) empathy puts business casual clothes on ‘practice what you preach’. Every action and activity you perform for your partner should be reflected internally. If you consider an in-house marketing or operations team, for example, their client IS their company. If you’re taking the time to plan, research, and create an optimal strategy for your partner, it’s important for internal teams to do the same for themselves. If you make assumptions about your own company, you will most certainly do the same with your business partners.
Striking the right balance is where empathy plays its most important role within your company. There’s an information balance–what do your people need or want to know? What do certain team members NOT need or want to know? Some people are doers, some are listen-and-doers, some are listen-participate-doers. It is crucial to identify who needs to be involved and when, based on how they approach and perform their roles.
Practicing empathy promotes balance in meetings. Understanding individual workflows and patterns better informs meeting timing, cadence, and content. Some team members might thrive on daily collaboration, while others prefer independent work with weekly work-in-progress reviews.
Self empathy is the best defense against the ego. Every leader should encourage their teams to take an objective look at their roles and how they approach their work and relationships. This isn’t some far-fetched namaste meditation–this is managing yourself.
There are a few ways to practice self empathy:
Give yourself a true, candid self-review–not necessarily the same self evaluation you provide your manager or HR.
Describe your job and contributions to yourself–if this is a difficult task, that’s a tell-tale sign that you need to discuss your role with your team and/or manager
Stop feeling bad for yourself: take self-sympathy out of the equation to focus on solutions.
If you don’t have clear definition and alignment around your role at your company or within a project, you’ll never be able to truly characterize your value and contributions. It’s important to investigate your perceptions of yourself. Regardless of the positive or negative feelings around this process, you’ll learn where there are gaps and what kind of support you need from your team and/or manager to improve, evolve, and make a bigger impact.
As with all products and experiences, it’s important to evaluate results and move forward based on continued learnings. Empathy can’t be measured in clicks, opens, downloads, or loyalty program points. But it can be realized through performance reviews, qualitative project post mortems, and testimonials.
If you and your team team take the time to deeply learn a business and their brand, there’s a much higher chance that your partner will invest their time and effort helping you tell your partnership story. Providing input for a case study, offering testimonials, sharing you with their networks. Anyone on the service side can empathize: Referrals mean everything.
Often flying under the radar, retention is another crucial success metric for empathetic practices. Team turnover is detrimental to projects, and directly impacts partner longevity, which is critical to your revenue goals. It’s more efficient and rewarding to do more work with exemplary teams for a great partner who understands your unique value proposition.
ABS: Empathy in Practice
ABC (Always Be Closing): It’s a general principle and mentality salespeople put into practice every day. In a similar light, promoting holistic empathy can amplify another, more universal, driving force that says:
ABS (Always Be Solving)
Understanding perspectives and circumstances during the product lifecycle allows you to continually offer solutions. The better you get at creating and communicating these solutions, the more empathy will become a quality standard and success metric, both internally and externally.
Even the most challenging projects can be boiled down to the basics when stakeholders (yes, even CEOs) are viewed as people with needs, views, and unique experiences. How they perceive and live in the conditions around them influence how they approach and respond to the work.
Holistic empathy takes the complexity around varying perspectives and transforms it into an asset–building partnership and sustainability, one human at a time.