There is a quote, adapted from Marcel Proust’s seven-volume Remembrance of Things Past, that reads: “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeing new sights, but in looking with new eyes.”

The appropriated quote works well on travel websites, but it’s also apt advice for the world at large. “Seeing with new eyes” is an efficient definition of empathy— It would seem that we all need more empathy, from the elementary school classroom to the office conference room to the world stage.

But empathy, more precisely, is about being able to see through someone else’s eyes, as best we can. In the workplace, we talk a lot about empathy in relation to customer service, but it’s equally important that we’re bringing empathy to the table before a customer phone call or tweet. Whether we’re in marketing, product design, recruitment, or sales, we should be walking in a customer’s shoes. If not we make our customer service teams reactionary—they’re at the receiving end of a customer’s frustration, anger, or misery. But wouldn’t it be better to slip on our customer's’ shoes much earlier?

Empathy is something we often have to be deliberate about, especially in disciplines where it’s maybe not a required skill. It takes a shift in perspective, and also that we pause our forward momentum to look closer at the people we’re trying to serve and the ways that we serve them.

Empathy: an exercise in perspective

Long before he set up his inaugural “empathy meeting,” journalist Cameron Conaway, former content marketing manager at Flow, learned a little lesson in perspective when he signed up for his first poetry class. Conaway’s instructor led the class outside, equipped with their notebooks and pens, and asked the students to focus on a single tree. For 60 seconds, the class was instructed to write about the tree. Afterward, they took three steps closer to the tree and repeated the exercise. Then they did it again. And again.

“She was timing it,” Conaway recalled of the class’ teacher, Lee Peterson. “She was like a drill instructor. This happened about five times until we were all square up against the tree’s bark, writing about the ants crawling up. It was one of those moments that blew my mind open and made me realize, ‘I’m not seeing anything in my life this way.’”

“It was one of those moments that blew my mind open and made me realize, ‘I’m not seeing anything in my life this way.’” - Cameron Conaway

It’s a simple but powerful metaphor because there is, of course, a big difference between viewing a tree from a 20-foot distance, noticing its branches against the sky, and standing pressed against its base, where the gnarled roots push up through the soil.

Take a closer look at your customers

For businesses trying to understand their customers better, The customer journey may look fine from a distance, but up close there may be gnarled roots along the way, small places to trip up the customer and cause them to doubt their relationship with your business.

Thinking about the customer from a place of empathy is everyone’s job. According to Gartner analyst Michael Moaz in his August 2016 report, empathy should be a company-wide initiative, prioritized at all levels of the organization. Without bringing more empathy into the workplace, Moaz argues, businesses place themselves at risk for disruption by companies who do put the customer first. He writes, “What the disrupting companies all have in common is a focus on the way customers want to be treated.”

There’s no replacement for face time

The best way to learn how your customers want to be treated is to ask them. Forward-thinking companies like Box do one better than just periodically interviewing customers. Once a month, they try and bring in a customer for lunch—and invite everyone.

“We have our customers come in, stand in front of the company, and tell us what they like and don’t like,” shared Jon Herstein, Senior Vice President of Customer Success. “In the room, you’ve got the engineers, the product managers, everyone hearing directly from a customer. The more we can do that—and remind people that this is what it’s actually about—the better off we are as a company.”

Flow takes another approach: shadowing. While customers are valuable sources for product-related feedback, the team also just wanted to spend time with potential Flow users, to better understand their work routines. “We just really wanted to learn what their typical day was like and to understand how they worked,” Conaway explained.

People were receptive and generous with their time, and the shadowing sessions unearthed customer pain points—not with Flow’s product, but in their work lives—which helped everyone from Flow’s product engineers to content marketers know what to solve for.

“Being able to understand a customer’s pain points—seriously, to where they hurt you, too—that’s radical empathy,” Conaway said.

Anatomy of an “empathy meeting”

From these interviews, as well as his experience as a poet and investigative journalist, Conaway recognized the need to keep customer empathy at the forefront of everything they were doing at Flow. The content marketing team began to hold what they called “empathy meetings.”

The team would begin at a high level and follow a thread of inquiry. For example, “Why are we trying to drill down on ‘simple project management’ as a keyword? Well, it's because project management is usually very complicated for busy new managers. Oh, why are they busy new managers? Oh, they're part of a very lean startup, and maybe they're very new to management, so they're stressed….”

In these weekly meetings, the only agenda item was to ask purposeful and open-ended questions—the keystones of empathic, humanistic design. “The team got together to bounce questions off each other and come up with potential scenarios,” Conaway explained. Most of these questions started with: “Why?”

By creating the space to ask these questions, they often realized that industry best practices, like creating a comprehensive topic guide, might not actually be what their customers needed. Busy new managers at lean startups, for example, instead appreciate quick time-saving tips. By building a story, the team was able to

Empathy-inspired results

Of course, storytelling involves a lot of conjecture. The team at Flow knew they needed to take the outcomes of their empathy meetings and compare their ideas against actual customer feedback. “We wanted to calibrate our thoughts with what we were hearing from companies on the ground,” Conaway said, “and to blend reality and imagination.”

They created “empathy documents” of customer pain points—both imagined and real—and talked through the differences. On the surface, the empathy documents could be confused for comprehensive "buyer personas," but they were built by thinking of people as people, not people as buyers. This shift in perspective "breathed life into our whole content marketing strategy," Conaway said.

On the surface, the empathy documents could be confused for comprehensive "buyer personas," but they were built by thinking of people as people, not people as buyers.

They also took these insights to the product team. One particular insight highlighted what the company had long realized: that distraction from notifications and alerts was a big problem for any team trying to work collaboratively. Flow’s solution was to create a “Focus Ferret”—a character, but also a tab in the product that lets your team know when you’re in focus mode. When switched on, it holds all notifications.

“Our customers loved it,” Conaway said, “and all grew from our company’s ability to take empathy seriously. You can’t think outside the box until you step out of the box you’re in.” They also worked collaboratively to create a three-month marketing campaign around focus, including a more comprehensive ebook called “Deep Focus at Work,” which they doled out in smaller pieces on the company blog.

Get inspired

Science tells us that empathy is intentional, and it takes practice. The first step toward bringing more empathy into the workplace might be creating or fostering a culture of empathy internally. “If empathy is not an embedded part of your culture, and if you and your colleagues are not sharing stuff about your personal lives or being open about the terrible day you just had, and why,” Conaway explained, “it’s very difficult to force the empathy model onto customers. I think you have to be living it.”

Even as an exercise, it seems worth considering what empathy meetings might do for your company. Who would you invite—your team or a cross-section of the company? The CEO? What is the first question you’d ask? As Conaway explained, some days the questions focused on something really granular, like why they were targeting specific SEO keywords. Other days, it was big picture questions. Either way, the space and time they created at Flow allowed them to get close to the choices they made.

“I think we all have a certain responsibility to the customer that goes beyond building a great product,” Conaway said. “The obvious transaction is between the buyer and the product, but underlying this is a transaction between pain and caring.”

Suzanne Barnecut is a content marketer for Zendesk and a frequent contributor to Relate. Fascinated by technology, but a diehard reader of paper-made books and sender of snail mail. Find her on Twitter: @elisesuz.