I am convinced that businesses that practice empathy as a core value do better in the long run. Admittedly, my MBA is printed in crayon on the back of my music degree, so this could be wishful thinking. But considering that HBR has written glowingly about it more than once (including very recently)—not to mention Entrepreneur, Forbes, Stanford's business school, and the Center for Creative Leadership—I'm probably not wrong, and clearly not first.
I'll discuss practical empathy across business functions, as a way of getting to empathetic product management by example. Many subscribe to the idea that a product manager is a mini-GM. At a minimum, product management is a discipline that touches every aspect of a business (mostly excepting back office roles like accounting and facilities). So understanding empathetic product management requires thinking about what empathy and kindness look like in other roles. These other roles are clients of the product management organization, so practicing kindness in product management means both supporting them in their efforts at empathy, and emulating those who are successful at it.
The case for empathy in sales should be obvious—reading the prospect is an essential skill in the drive towards conversion, and any successful salesperson will exhibit that degree of empathy. But I've seen individuals and whole companies act with hubris towards their prospects and the broader market in a way that undermines their long-term credibility, leading to canceled contracts down the line that could have been long-term customers, even promoters.
Hubris is the antithesis of empathy. Hubris convinces salespeople to aggressively chase accounts when the product just won't meet the prospect's needs even after accounting for 80/20 rules. (Compensation structures that reward short-term thinking probably don't help—but that's beyond my ken.) Empathetic selling doesn't require you to back off the boldness of an honest claim about your product's strengths, or routinely give deep discounts, or anything else weak-in-the-knees. No, what empathy gives you in sales situations is an unambiguous awareness of when your product is honestly not going to fulfill the long-term needs of the prospect (even allowing for future enhancements). And it gives you the confidence to walk away from what might be an alluring sale, but to a customer who will have a bad experience and flee your product as soon as contractually possible. I'd wager that while aggro sales machines might hit their quarterly numbers pretty well, the LTV of their conversions is much lower than what an empathetic sales team will produce.
So what's your goal? Sign up a high number of customers that are harder (more expensive) to service, many of whom won't renew? Or, be more deliberate (and possibly slower) in acquiring customers, but get quality, good-fit customers with 2x (or more) the LTV? An empathetic business will want the latter—turn down some big whales and some tiny, easy-to-close minnows too, in order to build a sustainable business off customers who are delighted to find the product really does solve their problem (and maybe more).
You can call this strategic selling (it is) or smart selling (it is), but I like to think of it merely as a kindness (empathy in action). It sounds terribly touchy-feely until you realize kindness in this case is just a smart way to optimize revenue. Kindness in sales is absolutely a strength, and can be a competitive advantage.
Similarly, empathy's role in good marketing should be obvious. Successful communication requires the speaker to understand the mindset of the listener, and it's no different in marcom. Social media fails are the perfect modern examples of empathy-free marketing. If the people responsible had taken the time needed to truly put themselves in the mind of the audience, could these famously insensitive tweets exist?
The hugely popular "Serial" podcast features a murder and a possible miscarriage of justice. A key element in the story is a payphone (that may not have existed) outside a Best Buy store in Maryland. A Best Buy employee enjoying some off-color humor about the sudden notoriety of that store can be forgiven. But sharing that risqué thought with the entire world is a clear sign that no one took a moment to empathize with the broader audience, not all of whom might enjoy associating Best Buy with murder (worst case), or might see it as a big brand attempting to cash in unfairly and awkwardly on the popularity of their favorite podcast (best case).
This infamous tweet from Kenneth Cole came out during the 2011 protests in Cairo. After the blowback, you'd think they would have put their social media team through sensitivity training, but apparently not—they made headlines again in 2013 for much the same thing.
Of course, these are just two of many examples of social media fails that somehow seem to be as routine as bad weather. Brands love to respond to controversy by saying that they'll review procedures and policies. Yes, it's important to make sure everyone knows how to use HootSuite to keep embarrassing personal tweets off the corporate account, but the missing element in these social media policies is empathy.
Services and support
Services teams often have an unenviable job. Fielding testy calls and e-mails from upset customers is emotionally draining. But, if you're in services, that's exactly the job you've signed up for, so it pays dividends both at the business level and in personal sanity to treat complainers kindly. In practice, this means taking the time to craft a response that is both helpful and appropriately apologetic. And yes, that means putting yourself in the shoes of the customer.
I've been aghast before at terse responses to bug tickets. (But, shamefully, I've done it myself.) When you're pressed for time and have a big backlog, it's easy to opt for a shortcut rather than crafting a good reply. However, your customer isn't concerned with your need to save time. They'd like a resolution, but even more, they want to believe that you genuinely care. It's possible (and actually more fun) to turn around a detractor with the right verbal response.
Don't let queries and complaints languish. Having them pile up without responses is as common during crunch times as it is damaging to your brand. A very quick response indicating that the problem is being investigated can buy a lot of time. Similarly, if an issue is taking a long time to resolve, keep reminding the customer that it's being looked into. (While it is kind to give an ETA, realize that you'll sometimes have to walk that back.)
When dealing with an irate customer, it's especially important to take a deep breath (physically or metaphorically) and craft an empathetic response. Save the venting and witty comebacks for happy hour.
Customer-facing PdM work
This advice works for product managers too, since we're customer-facing much of the time. Late shipping an enhancement that customers are clamoring for? Announce it with empathy. Getting feature requests that don't really align? Thank them for their input and make sure it's clear that feedback is truly important to you, even if you won't be able to fulfill their wishes.
UX & Engineering
Empathy in these product development roles can take many forms. Obviously, UX designers need to understand the user and treat user goals as their own. And obviously, engineers (all product development roles, really) need to make a product that doesn't suck. More concretely, that can take the form of always thinking about performance. Making a great user interface that fills a need is easier than making a great user interface that fills a need and also performs quickly and reliably. (There's much more to be said here, but out of scope for this article.
I've written previously on a great example of empathy in documentation. It's essential to understand not just the mental models your audience comes with, but also how much time they (probably don't) have. For instance, when documenting an API, realize that the reader usually just wants to accomplish a specific goal as quickly as possible. While it's important to cover every parameter and procedure thoroughly, it's vital to realize that not all information has the same priority. Emphasize what's most useful, provide alternatives for people with different learning styles (such as sample code in addition to the nitty-gritty details), and call out pitfalls/gotchas.
And, have a personality to leaven the boredom inherent to tech docs. Documentation doesn't have to lack self-expression.
I found one of the hardest things in people management to be squelching defensiveness and listening to criticism from the people who report to you. Treating employees with kindness is essential not just to everyday getting along, but also in growing people professionally. This is especially true in tough situations like conflict resolution or hearing why an employee is dissatisfied. My prescription is the same as what I described for services above: put aside your pride and take a moment to empathize.
A couple bits of business etiquette
On e-mail: Some of the accepted cornerstones of e-mail etiquette are knowing when to send an e-mail vs. interacting face-to-face, when a response is required, and omitting excessive text—basically, empathizing with the person or people on the other end of the conversation and trying to hit the sweet spot between too little and overkill. (Good e-mail practices are also generally good for bug tickets and the like.)
On devices in meetings: I've been awfully guilty of trying to multitask in meetings, maybe responding to e-mail while allegedly listening. I was wrong. As a former boss's boss's boss writes, multitasking is ineffective and more than a little rude. Give this a try: when someone is speaking to you, listen, and restrict devices for most meetings to looking up important information. (If you're using a laptop or tablet to take notes, announce it.) I made a personal policy of that and found that it did nothing but help. If you're too busy to be present in a meeting, the solution is to reduce the number of meetings, not to make them less effective.
There's much more to be said on this topic, but I'm convinced that it's hard for sexism or racism to exist in an environment full of empathy.
Kindness in product management
That brings me at last to what it means to practice kindness in PdM. Like an empathetic salesperson, we should help guide our product toward the right customers (not every conceivable customer). Like an empathetic marketer, we should make our product marketing fit the mental model of the audience, and avoid assuming they're in our heads. As with empathy in services, we should be kind when dealing with customers, especially in response to feedback about problems and enhancement requests. Like good tech writers, all our communication should be characterized by empathy. And naturally, like the rest of the product development team, we need to make products that don't suck. (Much easier said than done.)
In concrete terms, you could develop a long list of DOs and DON'Ts—like being careful that your specification documents capture just the right amount of detail—but in the end, it all comes from the desire to put yourselves in the shoes of your client. While empathy skills can be learned (and need to be regularly sharpened), you can make big immediate strides by following this edict: practice kindness.