I’ve been searching for a particular word for a long, long time.

I don’t know if it’s the magic word, but I think I’ve arrived at the best possible match: empathy.


When I discuss building personal and professional relationships, I often have a hard time explaining what makes them work. As I’ve gained and lost friends over the years, I’ve become tuned into peoples’ behavior, and a pattern has emerged: the most empathetic people were the ones who were willing to meet at least halfway (and usually went the extra mile, happily).

Recently, a product designer and researcher interviewed me to get a sense of how I, a Deaf person, approach people and technology in professional and personal situations. Naturally, communication was the main theme.

I shared my ability to recognize empathy, or lack thereof. While I do consider this a gift, it can also be the source of great frustration.

Here is an excerpt from the conversation:

Me: “I embrace all kinds of ALL communication methods… but naturally, the people I become the closest to will be the ones who genuinely want to make the effort to meet me halfway or more by providing interpreters at meetings (shout out to Jeannie!) or learning Sign Language. Those are the most successful relationships…

I had the same [personal] trainer for 5 months and we had such a great working relationship. He learned some Sign Language for me, and he got transferred recently. I was so frustrated… not just because I missed the quality of his workouts, but because he invested in our relationship by trying to learn sign and I didn’t have to make him do it!

When this happened, I said I was not going to pay a premium if the new trainer would not learn sign, regardless of the quality. When this trainer naturally wanted to learn sign, I couldn’t picture working with someone who didn’t want to make the investment in a client relationship. Make sense?”

Interviewer: “Yes. As a designer my most satisfying work was with people who took the effort to learn about design rather than just see me as someone who can make things better.”

Me: “Yes… what’s the best way to describe those kind of people? Can’t quite put the finger on it sometimes…”

Customer Empathy through Product, Service and Design

A very serendipitous thing happened a couple of days later. A fascinating article was tweeted to me shortly after the interview. It’s called How Extreme Users Propel Innovation by Zach Zupalla. The interviewer had called me an extreme user, too, and it was the first time I had ever heard that term. Fresh off the interview, this article took my thought process even further.

What ARE Extreme Users?

The term “extreme users” refers to customers who will pay a premium for empathy when it is reflected in a memorable customer experience.

Zach Zupalla does a great job summing it up:

“Just look at extreme users – the 1% of people who take products beyond their normal expectations. Sort of like “off-label” uses of technology.”

In the article, Zach discusses how the Deaf use light in very different ways than the hearing do – signaling. He was inspired to create Spark, a product that lets users control light with the internet and provides an API for developers to use it for other purposes, such as signaling a user when there’s a new email or a stock price increase.

Even last weekend, my friend Jimmy was telling me he was thinking about creating a light fixture that would signal when the room was getting too noisy, which would be extremely useful with neighbors living so close. I bet that would come in handy during parties for you guys too, yeah!?

Oh, and it is NO coincidence that Jimmy himself is not Deaf, but he is fluent in Sign Language, and socializes with Deaf people.

Great ideas like Jimmy’s stem from empathy. Those ideas reduce friction in our everyday lives.

How Customer Empathy Can Eliminate Friction

One day I was at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart and I got a taste for Potbelly’s chicken salad, which I go nutty for, so I went to grab one at lunchtime. I saw the line and groaned.

But it wasn’t the long line that bothered me. It was how they were taking orders. There was an employee working the line and taking orders in advance, which seemed pointless with people shouting over counters for order clarification. All I could think about was how awkward it was going to be for me to communicate. I hoped I wasn’t going to steal somebody’s order on accident again. Yes, again. :-/

But I wanted my chicken salad so I gave it a shot.

I walked away with my salad after a couple of fumbles, but the whole thing could have been easier for me…and everybody else. Why don’t more places deliver options for customer-centric service like the grilled cheese joint, The Melt, does? They use QR codes for order tracking. Customers order online, scan their orders with QR codes, and watch for their names on the monitor when the orders are ready to be picked up.

I bet people would pay a little premium for that kind of efficiency and empathy.

Customer Empathy Leads to Innovation and Loyalty

There’s a second point from Zach’s article I want to elaborate on:

“The first [lesson] was to learn from extreme users, but the issue is that extreme users tend to represent small markets. To make a business worthy of VC investment (if that’s what you’re looking for) you may have to go after a market that is a tad larger. So the second lesson is this: find a way to apply your solution to a market that is large enough to sustain a viable business.”

Totally. As wonderful as it is to develop something for a small group, if your goal is to make a rippling impact business-wise, it needs a larger market. But the beauty of it is that if a small circle appreciates it, it’s very likely there will be another circle that will too!

That is, IF you make customer empathy a priority.

Problem-Solving, Opportunity & Growth through Empathy

Without problems you cannot uncover opportunities to create frictionless and meaningful experiences. Empathy will help you discover and identify with the emotions of others to address their pain points in those problematic moments and innovate around them.

It is undoubtedly a prominent trait of remarkable customer-centric leaders. Customer empathy is what makes customer experience proactive instead of reactive.

It is what motivates customers to invest in you, regardless of whether you’re a product developer or a personal trainer.

It might not be the ultimate solution but with more empathy, you’ll be able to seize problems and provide a product or service people will pay a premium for because they know you “get” them.

It could be the next hot advantage you have.