Many companies have a desire to grow by winning customers in different parts of the world. But because of the diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and ideas of these multi-cultural customers, it isn't always the easiest to make existing products, communications, or ways of operating work for them.

The companies who've figured out how to serve customers with varied backgrounds have fared well. Over the weekend the movie Black Panther crossed the $1 billion mark in worldwide sales after being in theaters for only a month. And Rihanna's ultra-inclusive makeup line Fenty Beauty racked up sales of $72 million in its first month.

But having a mega budget, an all-star cast or a brand known worldwide isn't a prerequisite for effectively reaching diverse customers. H&M, Dove, and Pepsi have each had major missteps they've all apologized for in the past year despite their enviable resources.

The key that separate the companies who win customers globally from those who don't quite get it right comes down to mastering one simple skill: empathy.

How empathy helped a small startup better serve their customers in nearly every country in the world.

Josh Haynam is the co-founder of Interact, a seven-person startup that helps companies generate leads and grow sales using quizzes. Josh and his team serve customers in 192 countries. Even though they experienced plenty of frustrations doing it early on, once the team leaned into being empathetic, Haynam told me everything changed:

"We stopped thinking about things from our perspective and started trying to see things from someone else's perspective for the first time...from a different country or wherever, not knowing how to use this. And it's totally changed everything. Everything we've built since then is much more simple, easy to use. It's got explanations built into it, there's materials, there's offers to do calls...It really was a groundbreaking thing to just see it from an outside perspective."

When Josh and his team left their egos on the table with the intent to listen to their customers and to walk a mile in their shoes, it became clear that they could do a better job serving them.

You can do the same in your business, whether you want to reach more customers in your own country, or around the world.

Empathy is choice we make to extend ourselves to others. And the more you work to build a culture that exercises its' empathy muscle on a regular basis, the easier it will be for you to expand your reach to win more diverse customers.

Here are two ways to get started developing empathy as a strength.

1. Talk to your customers often. 

And when I say talk, I really mean listen. The Interact team has two team members who each do ten calls a day, five days a week. The time spent engaging with their customers gives them a front row seat into their challenges, common questions, and burning pains.

Interacting with your customers live as often as possible will give you and your team tremendous insights into their lives and what makes them tick. When I worked my corporate job, I made a point to get out with the sales force so I get close to our customers. The more I heard about and witnessed what their day-to-day was like, the better equipped I was to design solutions and materials that helped them reach their goals.

It wasn't always easy to pull myself out of the office, but making the time to talk with customers on a regularly basis was always well worth the effort.

2. Seek to understand their challenges.

The key to getting the most out of the time you spend getting to know your customers at a deeper level is suspending your agenda and any preconceived notions about the way things ought to function.

Our thoughts, ideas, and goals are limited by our frame of reference. And if you don't keep an open mind about uncovering the problems your customers' experience, you'll have a tough time finding the right solutions.

A while back I was a guest on an NPR radio program discussing the controversial Dove ad with the host and live callers. One listener expressed disdain for my and other customers' negative reaction to the ad because she didn't see how an advertisement could impact someone's self-esteem.

But when you suspend your own experiences as the marker for how the world works, it allows space in your consciousness to better receive and understand the plight of your customers, Especially when they don't mimic your own.

Technology has made it simpler to grow your business by engaging with customers all over the world. The degree of empathy you extend to them as you do will determine whether or not they feel like they belong with you. Choose empathy. Always.

Published on: Mar 13, 2018