The Art of Empathy

If you’re a creative person, empathy can be your most powerful weapon. Why? Because practicing the art of empathy can enable you to solve real problems for your customers.

Yes, empathy is an art. And, like any other of the arts, empathy needs to be practiced regularly in order to excel at it.


Photo by Ryan McGuire

So, how do you practice empathy? Start by sharpening your senses.

Listen: Practice really listening to your customer. Listen when he/she makes a big, bold statement. Often, that big, bold statement is a clue to what he’s most concerned about, i.e., what he may consider his biggest challenge. Listen for words or phrases he uses over and over. They could provide clues to what’s most important to him. Listen, also, for silence. Depending on your customer’s communication style, he may suddenly become silent when quizzed about a particularly problematic area of his business. This could be a signal that he feels he has an “unsolvable” problem.

Ask: Ask your customer, “Why?” and “How?” about everything. Ask even the obvious questions. Don’t assume you know the answers. You might be surprised at some of his answers. Asking those questions several times again in different ways will help you get to the real answers.

Look: Watch your customer when he/she speaks to you. Body language can be telling. A sudden animated gesture may point to what he currently considers his most pressing problem. If he shrugs his shoulders in resignation, it may indicate that he has all but given up on finding an answer to a particular problem.

Feel: Consciously think about how you feel when using your customer’s product or service. Give yourself this feel test and be sure to take notes: Document how you feel just before using the product or service. Next, document how you feel as you’re using the product/service. Then, describe and document your feelings after using the product or service. Be specific. Don’t leave anything out. Small things can turn out to be important things.

Touch/Taste: Put yourself in the shoes of your customer’s customer. Walk the aisles of his store. Touch his products. Put together that toy or shelf with your own two hands. Dine in his restaurant. Taste his food. Drink his coffee. Experience the buying process from start to finish.

Observe: Take time to observe your customer’s customers as they interact with his products or services. Not everyone will interact with them the same way you do.

Combine: Combine your senses to become a better observer. Watch and listen for inconsistencies in what your customer says and does. If he says one thing and does something else, this may alert you to a problem in need of solving.

Practice: Practice these empathy exercises to learn more about your customers and their customers. Take notes. Organize your thoughts. Share your ideas with others on your team. Draw conclusions together.

Empathy is an art…and there’s no such thing as too much art.

by Rebecca Cochran

7 Best Practices I Learned at Starbucks

CafeI enjoy my morning coffee ritual for so many reasons. The obvious benefit is that wonderful jolt of caffeine that helps to jump-start my day.

Yesterday morning, as I was sitting at my usual Starbucks enjoying my tall dark roast for here, I thought about one of the other benefits to starting my day there: observing and learning from the constant flow of customers. Yesterday, however, I concentrated on observing the staff. At this particular Starbucks, the staff is phenomenal. They (and the coffee) keep me coming back.

Practices I observed include:

They listen. No matter how busy the store became, the listening never stopped. One customer seemed to be sharing a particularly long, drawn-out story with the cashier, even whipping out her phone to share a photo. The cashier seemed to hang on her every word, certainly making that customer’s day. Meanwhile, the baristas, busily concocting tall “this” and grande “that’s,” listened and chatted happily with customers waiting for their orders.

They speak the language of their customers. I observed that same cashier interacting with various customers. Her demeanor and vocabulary seemed to change, depending on which of her regular customers was in front of her at the moment. This savvy professional obviously knows the value of speaking the language of her customers.

They smile. All staff members smile – at their customers and at each other. A smile can go such a long way, especially first thing in the morning.

They work as a team. This particular crew is impressive, working seamlessly together as a tight-knit team in small quarters.

They never stand still. They work and move quickly and efficiently. Even when there was a momentary lull in the customer flow, I noted that no staff member stopped moving. Each person made good use of the short downtime by refreshing stock, replenishing ingredients, bagging up trash, etc.

They go the extra mile. At one point, yesterday, a customer inadvertently left her credit card behind. The cashier could have easily placed it behind the counter until the customer realized it was missing and returned to retrieve it. The cashier went the extra mile, however. When he realized what had happened, he raced out of the store into the parking lot, found the customer as she was about to speed away and, no doubt, made her day by returning her card immediately.

They know the power of “Thank You.” Along with a smile, those two powerful words were uttered every few seconds by cashiers, baristas and managers alike.

It amazes me what can be learned at Starbucks. These best practices should be universal, no matter what work we’re doing.

by Rebecca Cochran

Lessons From a Night at the Opera

by Rebecca Cochran

On a recent trip to Paris, I decided to take in an opera performance at the Palais Garnier. I’ve enjoyed many opera performances throughout my lifetime, including two in Paris, but this was to be my first at the Garnier, the opulent Beaux-Arts masterpiece designed by Charles Garnier as part of the great reconstruction of Paris during the Second Empire of Napoleon III.

In advance, I noted that a French Baroque opera, Hippolyte et Aricie by Jean-Philippe Rameau was programmed one evening during my stay. I had always wanted to attend a live performance of a Rameau opera.Opera My expectations were high.

The curtain was to be at 7:30pm. I decided to swing by the box office midday to purchase a ticket. I was traveling alone, so I thought there was a good chance that a single ticket was still available. I exited the Metro at the Opera stop and the view of the Palais Garnier nearly took my breath away. After climbing the steps past hundreds of seated spectators who were enjoying an outdoor rock concert (go figure!), I entered the grand lobby. Again, the beauty took my breath away!

I stopped at the information desk to inquire about ticket availability for that evening. Although the box office was closed for lunch (silly me — I was in France, after all!), the gracious, articulate woman at the desk assured me that I would have no problem purchasing a ticket at the door, one hour before the curtain.

Some may have regarded this as a wasted trip. For me, however, the stop only whetted my appetite further for an evening filled with music, dance and beauty. Anticipation is a lovely thing.

After an afternoon of walking, sightseeing and visiting a friend, I returned to the Garnier just as the box office was opening for the evening. The line was long.

When I finally reached the ticket window, I asked to purchase one ticket. Although the performance was nearly sold out, I intuitively knew that I had a good chance of securing a single seat.

The box office representative’s first question to me (in perfect English, by the way) was, “Would you prefer a really lousy seat or a really great seat?” What a question!

My answer? “I would like to purchase a seat with an unobstructed view, s’il vous plais.”

So, I was told that there was one “great” seat left. It was in a box on the mezzanine level. All of the other seats in that box were taken. The price was more than I had ever paid for a musical performance of any kind, anywhere in my entire life!

After pondering a few moments and despite the painful conversion from Euros to dollars, I said, “d‘accord” and handed over my credit card. My expectations climbed higher.

The Large Staircase of The Garnier Opera, in P...

After enjoying an aperitif at the brasserie across the street, I walked back to the Garnier, ticket in hand. I climbed the stairs to the entry doors. I savored that grand entryway for the third time that day, then took the curving staircase up to the mezzanine level. My night at Opera Garnier had finally begun.

The young usher showed me to the box where my seat was located. There were eight movable seats in the box, seven of which were already taken. My seat was actually a backless stool at the rear of the box.

I wanted to settle in and read the program book I had purchased on my way in, but I found my seat very uncomfortable. In addition, no matter how I tried to rearrange its placement, I was unable to get more than just a sliver of a view of the stage. The stage was very close, but the tall patrons in front of me were obstructing my view. I tried moving my stool all the way to one side of the back of the box only to find that my view was then fully obstructed by the wall of the box.

Then the overture began. As a musician myself, I enjoy the opportunity to watch the musicians in a pit orchestra. I could see none of them. I could just barely make out the fact that the conductor was a woman.

When the curtain opened and the action began, my disappointment mounted. I could see only about a quarter of the actual stage. When the action was toward the wings, I could see nothing. Furthermore, I could see none of the projected supertitles.

So, I could not watch the musicians. I could see a quarter of the action and none of the translations. I tried to sit back, close my eyes and just listen to the music, but I wanted to savor the entire spectacle that evening. I wanted to understand the story that was unfolding on stage. I wanted to see the expressions on the faces of the singers. I expected no less than the complete opera experience!

As the first act ensued, my dissatisfaction escalated. I literally spent most of that first act deciding whether to leave and go back to my hotel room, unfulfilled and unhappy only two days into my vacation. What I decided, instead, was to find the usher who had seated me, communicate my dissatisfaction and ask for a refund.

I quietly left the box. There was the usher who had seated me. I started with, “I am unhappy with my seat.” She said that she couldn’t help me. The hall was completely sold out. I asked if the box office was still open and she said, “No, but they wouldn’t help you anyway. No refunds. No exchanges.”

Next, I walked down to that gorgeous entry lobby. I’m sure I was frowning. A young man approached me. He may have been the house manager. He asked me what the problem was. I said that although I had never left an opera performance early in my entire life, I was so unhappy with my seat that I found it impossible to enjoy the performance. He looked at my ticket stub and said, “This is one of the best seats in the house.” Obviously, my expectations were higher than his.

He then had me follow him back up to the mezzanine level. He said that he was going to take a look at my seat and see what could be done to improve upon my experience.

Just as we got there, a man and a woman left one of the center boxes. The manager asked me to wait a moment while he went to appease the other couple. A discussion followed; I could not hear the conversation. The couple then left the hall completely. I wondered what their complaint had been.

The house manager then had me follow him to the center box where there were now two empty seats in the front row. I took one. The other one remained empty the entire evening.

My experience was now so different! No obstructions. No need to crane my neck. I had a clear view of the entire stage, the orchestra and the supertitles. I was able to quickly get back to the story line of the opera and salvage the entire evening!

After the final curtain (and multiple curtain calls by the incredible cast), I exited the box and walked down those lovely stairs once again. I spotted the house manager and thanked him for saving my evening. As it turned out, the wife of the other couple had felt ill and she and her husband decided to forfeit their tickets and go home. With an otherwise sold out hall, the house manager quickly seized the opportunity to, as he put it, “make a good memory of Paris for me.”

In retrospect, I wonder:

Were my expectations set too high? By me and/or the box office staff?

Had the box office representative ever sat in the house and witnessed a performance?

For that matter, had the ushers and house manager ever done so?

Was I a victim of price gouging?

What was the cost of the seat I actually sat in?

I cannot help but feel that there are several lessons here:

Lesson #1: Be careful when setting expectations for your customers.

Lesson #2: Remember to “Think like a customer.” Make sure you and your staff periodically experience the purchasing process from start to finish. And, don’t stop there. Take yourself through the entire user experience once in a while.

Lesson #3: Train and empower your employees to make wise customer service decisions on their own.

What do you think? What were other learning moments from my night at the opera?

This post was originally published in July, 2012.