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November 7th, 2018
Blurring the line between inside and out
by Alexandra Hull

In this new blog post our senior project manager Alice Hesmondhalgh talks about the importance of organisations blurring the lines between insight and out, to help create empathy with their customers, innovate, spot opportunities, make faster decisions, and grow.

One of the leading supermarket chains, who employs my friend within their finance team, allows her to spend her weekends in one of their retail stores to boost her annual leave allowance. I never quite understood this until now. I recently read Dev Patnaik’s book: ‘Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy’ and now I realise that the supermarket chain in question has an ulterior motive. It is not to create a better work life balance or increase happiness and productivity. Their ulterior motive is simply to build empathy.

Empathy is the ability to step outside of ourselves and into the shoes of someone else.

It’s about experiencing what it feels like to be another (em=into, pathy = feeling). During the time my friend spends in store she can meet customers, understand their needs and experience the shopping environment as they do. Ultimately, with a bit of empathy, she can walk in the shoes of every single shopper she comes face to face with.

This is a great example of building empathy which is the theme of the book Wired to Care. It shows how businesses can use empathy to make connections with customers and discover what they really want. The book includes many powerful insights, as well as many case studies, all of which demonstrate that other customer centric organisations are operating in this way too.

It’s Pixar sending the producer of the Ratatouille movie to work under French Laundry chef, Thomas Keller. This experience enabled the producer to fully appreciate the highs, lows, joys and sorrows of working in a kitchen, and make the film truly representative and authentic.

It’s what a New York designer did when she decided to run her own experiment and transform herself into an eighty-five-year-old woman to truly reveal what it was like to be a senior citizen. Her findings were extraordinary. She discovered that getting old wasn’t really the problem, it was everything else. The way the door didn’t easily open or the potato peeler wouldn’t fit in her hand. The experiment revealed huge business opportunities that had been overlooked for years.

But unfortunately, most large organisations can’t depend on a single person’s experience. That’s why organisations need to create widespread empathy across their entire employee population. Without it, they risk making decisions every day without their customer in mind.

When Netflix started they ran an empathy programme which created widespread empathy. They gave all new employees a DVD player and subscribed them to the Netflix service. So, their employees didn’t have to wonder what it was like to be a Netflix customer; they had become customers, too.

IBM also ran an empathy programme called Operation Bear Hug. This programme required each of IBM’s top 250 managers to get up close and personal with their biggest customers. They were required to listen to their customers and feel what it is like to be them. The IBM execs were required to listen but – critically – they were not permitted to sell to their customers. Operation Bear Hug ultimately enabled IBM managers to act much more quickly to resolve customer issues, and to spot new opportunities to serve their customers better.

Evidently all these organisations are working to the same objective, to blur the line between inside and out. Nicely put by Harley Davidson’s former head of services, Lara Lee,

“We don’t spend a lot of time talking about what consumers want. So far as we’re concerned, we are them and they are us”.

So, you may now think this sounds amazing, but how do we achieve it? Well this is where the book could have done better. It offers thought-provoking and inspiring stories but sometimes lacks tools to help readers create empathy in their own organisations. However, there are a few suggestions:

1) Make it easy: Provide methods for people within your company to connect with the outside world (fusion learning suggestion: host your next meeting in an area where you might typically find your consumers, like where they work or shop)

2) Make it every day: Bring your consumers to life in your work environment (fusion learning suggestion: work as a team to create pen portraits, blow them up A1 and display them prominently in the office)

3) Make it experiential: Don’t rely entirely on numerical data about your customers. Start talking to and observing your audience as often as you can (fusion learning suggestion: talk to your consumers in their own environments – also known as ethnographic research)

The book Wired to Care truly shows how widespread empathy can blur the line between inside and out, and how it can change organisations for the better. I’m glad we chose this great business book for our debut fusion learning book club read, as it was an easy to comprehend and includes so many powerful insights.

And for that reason, I would 100% recommend reading it! If you decide to read the book or have any other business book recommendations, please contact me (alice@fusionlearning.com)!