The power of emotions has been known for millennia. Aristotle first emphasized the importance of emotions in his rules of persuasion. In the last century, neuroscience unequivocally demonstrated that emotions play a central role in decision-making. We all know that customers do not make decisions based on logic alone. Yet, with some exceptions, human emotions remain vastly overlooked and underacknowledged in business practices. The feelings and emotional needs of customers are routinely neglected. This void constrains our ability to deliver enduring happiness and lasting engagement. Enduring happiness comes from satisfying the deep-seated psychological needs of customers. Not just their observable needs, which are the functional requirements all companies strive to satisfy, but the underlying emotional longings that drive their choices.
Uncovering Emotional Needs
Unlike functional needs, which can be observed from the outside in, emotional needs are often hidden. In my work with clients, I to refer to them as “inner needs”. Inner needs are harder to identify yet vital to understand. If you ask customers, they won’t tell you what those are. Often they don’t know themselves. Uncovering inner needs requires a different set of tools and skills. It requires that we leave the comfort of data crunching, and step into the realm of human feelings. It requires that we become curious to know what it feels like to be our customers. Not just what it would be like for us to be in their shoes — the erroneous shortcut most of us take — but what’s it like for them to be in their shoes. It requires that we move beyond observation, and seek to internalize what in our product is susceptible to cause emotional distress, or conversely, delight.
Gaining this level of insight requires a mindshift. We cannot discover the inner needs of others without changing our frame of reference. The skill involved in this process is called cognitive empathy. Unfortunately, the word empathy has been so overused that it’s lost its meaning. Most of us think of ourselves as empathetic. We believe that we know what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes. But do we really? A good portion of design thinking projects don’t deliver on their promise, not because the process is flawed, but because practitioners are unable to empathize with the customer without overlaying their views. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another”. We ought to recognize that few of us recognize, let alone vicariously experience, the feelings of customers. We merely tip toe into their shoes without leaving our frame of reference. We forget to take our shoes off.
The Key to Enduring Happiness
Philosopher Daniel Haybron defines happiness as emotional wellbeing. I personally love this definition, and find it a powerful compass to cultivate deeper happiness in my life. It also provides a fertile foundation to create happiness for others. In the context of cultivating customer happiness, it prompts us to look after the emotional wellbeing of customers. It orients us to pay attention to and be responsive to their emotional needs – something we are not very attuned to, as an industry. We place all our efforts on meeting functional needs, and routinely overlook the feelings and psychological needs of customers. This void constrains our ability to deliver complete satisfaction and enduring happiness.
After many years working in product roles with Silicon Valley companies, I’ve witnessed this void again and again. Now, I work with companies to help them discover the emotional needs of customers the current frameworks are not addressing. It’s been a fascinating journey. I’ve found that creating solutions that carry and keep customers in a sustained positive mind state requires a mind shift. It requires that we engage our emotions and internalize the needs of the customer from the inside out. It requires that we marry data analytics with empathetic curiosity. It requires that we seek to understand the emotional impact of our actions. There is a true path to enduring customer success, but that path can be reached only by crossing the bridge of cognitive empathy.
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