Empathy: The missing ingredient in behavioural influence

An audience member approached me last week after our panel discussion on User Experience and Psychology had concluded. She asked a simple question that made me realise I’ve been neglecting to share an essential skill in behavioural influence; a skill that will accelerate your ability and confidence in getting people to click, buy, read, answer, agree or turn up.

She asked “How do I develop empathy?”


Empathy is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and imagine what life is like for them. Empathy is important because having a sense of your customer’s likes, loathes and fears means you can anticipate how they’ll respond to something you put before them – a website, proposal, ad or email.

A business with a lack of empathy is easy to spot because it shows up in what they do.

For instance:

  • A “value proposition” that is all about the business rather than the customer’s problem
  • Non responsive web design
  • Newsletter sign-ups without any “What’s in it for me?”
  • No security seals on payment pages
  • No assurances or confirmations
  • Directing customers to FAQs rather than customer service

So how can you hone your empathy skills to be more effective? 

Developing empathy

In researching this topic, most advice about developing empathy was limited to statements like “put aside your viewpoint”, or “engage in active listening”. Easier said than done, right?

In a general sense, to develop your attunement to others you can:

  • Read literary fiction which stimulates your imagination through connection to characters (Read a study on that here.)
  • Watch a TV drama with the sound down to get better at observing behaviour
  • Use your non-dominant hand when accessing your own forms and website because it will encourage you to switch off your auto-pilot

More particularly, to influence customer behaviour we’re interested in understanding enough about them without entering into deep and meaningful conversation. We want to get a flavour of what makes them tick. Pragmatically, that means:

  • Listening to customer calls – play the role of observer and make sure you don’t participate in the call so you can concentrate on hearing what they say
  • Walking in their shoes – go where they go, see what they see, read what they read. I quickly developed empathy for our logistics team when, as a product manager, I spent a day delivering phone books
  • Visiting competitors – visit competitor websites and/or retail environments to see how they are trying to talk with your customers

Once you feel you have enough of a sense of your customer, it’s time to formalise your empathetic understanding.

Customer empathy map

To more formally capture the mindset of your customer, I’ve developed the following Customer Empathy Map. In the example below the map has been used to get into the mindset of 25 to 35 year olds, because we wanted then to more actively engage in their superannuation.

bri williams


Answering these five questions will force you to stop thinking about your product and instead imagine what’s going on in your customer’s world.

While more detail on the empathy mapping process is covered in day two of my Applied Behavioural Techniques workshop, you’ll notice that the Customer Empathy Map doesn’t solve how you will get your customer to do what you want them to do. For that you can use the Williams Behaviour Change Model. 

Expand your world

I hope that has fleshed out the importance of empathy and how to go about developing skills in that space. To end, a quote from Daniel Goleman from his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships. While he was talking about empathy among individuals, you can also read it as a lesson for business.

“Self-absorption in all its forms kills empathy, let alone compassion. When we focus on ourselves, our world contracts as our problems and preoccupations loom large. But when we focus on others, our world expands. Our own problems drift to the periphery of the mind and so seem smaller, and we increase our capacity for connection – or compassionate action.”

Bri Williams deletes all buying hesitation and maximises every dollar of your marketing spend by applying behavioural economics to the patterns of buying behaviour. More at http://www.briwilliams.com.au


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