There are many qualities said to make up a firm's winning formula -- tenacity, innovation, ambition -- to name a few. Curiously, empathy doesn't often make the list. Whether it's because we think it's too much of a "soft" skill, or because it's harder to measure and quantify, the truth remains that we don't often talk about empathy as critical to success.
And, yet the most admirable businesses and organizations remain those who are able to anticipate and respond to their clients and customers' needs, wants, dreams, and feelings.
Brene Brown, who has built a career as an "empathy builder," has said that, "Empathy is a choice and it's a vulnerable choice because in order to connect with you, I have to connect with something in myself that knows that feeling."
I know in my own experience as a speaker and builder in digital media that marketing is a hollow promise without the capacity to listen for a brand's audience's voice and values, truly connect, and, out of that place of connection, communicate.
After all, social media, without empathy, is just chatter.
Without empathy, all we're doing is talking (or tweeting, as the case may be) across the void.
So how can we begin to incorporate more listening, connection, and ultimately -- empathy -- into our work? What industries or organizations can we look to as exemplars?
One of my personal role models for embracing the role of empathy is the Dallas-based architectural firm 5G Studio. Simply put, 5G Studio puts empathy at the center of their design philosophy. Knowing 5G Studio to be an award-winning, prestigious, and unfailingly impressive firm with clients as illustrious as Legacy ER, Omni Hotels & Resort, and Virgin Hotels, I wasn't surprised when they revealed that at the heart of their winning formula was not a particular method, famous technique, or obscure style, but rather the startling and familiar concept of empathy.
Empathy, 5G Studio's partners argue, is what allows you to truly understand your customers' needs. And in their case, those customers are not only the clients who hire them, but the people who will be living and working in the buildings that 5G Studio's team designs.
It follows naturally that one of the many areas in which 5G excels is hospitality design. These design projects require something extra from the architectural firms that work on them as the entire purpose of these buildings is to welcome and nurture the people who use them.
That "extra" is deeply felt empathy.
As 5G Studio's co-founder Yen Ong tells me, "Successful and memorable hospitality environments anticipate, provide, and care for their users. Beauty, coolness, and aesthetic are just the shallow ends of the potentially profound experience."
One example of this profundity is found in Yen's first-hand experience of the principle of empathy at work. While he was designing Legacy ER's first building, his second son was born prematurely at 30 weeks, causing his wife and him to rush to the emergency room at midnight.
They were met by dim lights and cold, sterile corridors. The stark, clinical environment escalated their anxieties and offered little hope. Having sought refuge within its walls, and found none, Yen walked away with a deep understanding of the impact of a structure's design on the lives it sheltered.
He resolved to apply this understanding to the Legacy ER's design, and his next draft evidenced a dedication to the patient experience that caught the attention of both the architecture and medical communities The second building Yen and 5G Studio designed for Legacy ER earned numerous national and international design awards, most notably from the National American Institute of Architects' Academy of Architecture for Health and the International Interior Design Association for the structure's significant contribution to the design of an environment for healing.
The stakes and rewards are not always so dramatic, but the fact remains that to anticipate the needs of a user or customer, you must first understand them. Why are they there? What are their pain points? What makes them feel valued? What do they find valuable?
These are the same questions that those of us who are in marketing should be asking ourselves every day -- and if you look at some of the most respected and successful brands out there, you can see that they've made answering these questions an integral element of their business and marketing strategies.
As Ong adds, "Why do these brands rise above the competition? I'd argue that they understand their customers better, beyond their most objective needs. Starbucks, for example, led the coffee revolution by pairing experience with quality product at a time when others stopped at simply selling customers a cup of coffee."
In other words, they strove to make real, authentic connections with their customers. This has always been vital in marketing, but in today's digital ecosystem, it's easier than ever to tell when a company is just going through the motions, rather than putting in the effort required to find out what truly resonates with their customers.
And since today's consumers, especially Millennials, value brand authenticity over almost any other consideration, neglecting to make genuine, empathetic connections will cost your business dearly.
Businesses like Lyft, Warby Parker, Southwest Airlines, AirBnB, and 5G Studio are using empathy to blaze new trails, meet their customers where they are, and develop service models that prioritize relationships. This trifecta allows them to take on the proverbial Goliaths of the industry.
As marketers, or architects, or through any profession we pursue, it's our job to make empathy an integral element of our business lexicon. Without it, we've got no chance of nurturing those profound connections that make our work -- and our lives -- so rewarding.