Empathy—our ability to understand and feel the experience of another—is often overlooked as a soft skill, a touchy-feely emotional construct that exists in the world of human resources, philosophy, or psychology, not the boardroom. But empathy is actually one of the most vital skills you can acquire. Your ability to empathize could very well be the difference between your success and failure.
Let me explain.
Think of yourself as Amazon during the dawn of e-commerce. You’re trying to determine how and why people will shop online vs. at brick-and-mortar retailers, but you haven’t yet figured it out. You have resources and you are great executors, but neither matter unless you create the right product and solve the right problem.
As you move forward and try to predict the future of commerce, what’s the most important exercise for you to perform? How can you determine what the customer wants before they know themselves?
The answer, empathize.
Bezos and team took on the perspective of the consumer; they felt what the consumer was feeling. By experiencing the problem as the one dealing with that problem, they invented the most effective solution. For example, one-click purchases are the result of the company’s obsession with a frictionless user experience. Why did they become obsessed? They experienced friction when trying to make purchases and empathized realizing if they could make the friction for online purchases less than the friction for brick and mortar purchases they would gain a sustainable competitive advantage. So that is exactly what they did.
Empathy makes you understand.
The story behind Spanx is no different. Founder Sara Blakely didn’t just have an epiphany one day and start making incredibly successful undergarments. Her empathy gave her a unique perspective and advantage; preceding her invention. Sara was selling fax machines door-to-door and was forced to wear panty hose in the hot Florida weather. While she disliked wearing them, she liked the way their control top made her body appear firmer. She felt the problem and that made her empathetic to other women with experiencing the same problem. As she began to develop her product, she realized the hosiery industry was overseen solely by men. They weren’t users of the products and therefore had no empathy for the female consumer. On the contrary Sarah had substantial empathy. This led her to understand their needs more deeply, giving her a significant advantage.
Empathy precedes invention because empathy precedes connection. To effectively serve the needs of another you must understand their needs. The deeper you are able to understand and connect, the more profound your impact will be.