The Psychology of Empathy & How To Use It To Sell Your Design Services


Can you remember when Netflix introduced a $6 per month price hike last year? $6, you have to admit, is a tiny increase for most people in the U.S. And even after the increase, many commentators quip that Netflix still has the best offer in town.

The reason Netflix has the best offer in town, despite the hike, is because it’s a company that cares. Their history shows that (they won best customer satisfaction awards for years). In fact, I’d bet that they spent a couple million dollars just conducting research to find out how much to increase their price, how that will impact their customer satisfaction, how to absorb as much of the increase as possible, etc.

So why, despite doing all the right things, did Netflix fail the empathy test? Because empathy is not just about listening to your customers. It’s not just about “walking in your customer’s shoes” and “understanding them”.

These are certainly the first steps but it is more than that. Empathy, as it turns out, is about making your customers feel understood. Read that again. Because think about it: don’t we all just want to be heard, even if what our opinions aren’t ultimately implemented?

And Netflix failed to deliver that message.

Your Appearance

Psychologists now know that we make our decisions based on heuristics and biases. That means we don’t stop to think everything through, instead, we rely on a few “mental shortcuts” to make our decisions in a snap.

One of the most powerful heuristics we rely on is appearance. In fact, a study published in the American Psychological Association found that non-verbal cues are twice as powerful as verbal cues when it comes to depicting empathy. If someone wears a Navy uniform, for example, you immediately make a few basic assumptions about that person. Most of us intuitively know that.

But here’s what interesting: if someone dresses like you, they immediately carry what I like to call “assumed empathy”. That is, the fact they dress like you, make you think they understand you. You can use this to your advantage when pitching your services.

Here are four areas to pay attention to:

  1. How you dress is going to matter. While you don’t want to mimic your prospect, you also don’t want to go to the other spectrum. For example, I’ve heard career experts recommending that all men should “dress in a suit” for interviews – but what if you are interviewing in a place where everyone wears casual?
  2. Body language. Every person in this world has a unique set of mannerisms. These include what we do with our hands when we are thinking (some place it on their chin, other close their mouth), how we stand, how we sit and even how we cross our legs. And body language experts found that subtle mirroring can induce a feeling of closeness. Another way to use body language to your advantage: always lean slightly forward when speaking to a prospect. Leaning forward shows you’re interested – and therefore listening. Lying back, however, gives the impression that you’re relaxed – and therefore disengaged.
  3. Eye contact. This one is obvious but I want to quickly mention a common mistake: looking down. It’s a habit most people have when they are thinking, but that signals guilt or shame. The next time you’re thinking of an answer to your prospect’s question, look sideways.
  4. Facial expressions. Facial expressions play a much bigger role than what you actually say in depicting empathy. For example, if your client talks about how he wasted a bunch of money with the last provider, cringe and shake your head. You don’t even need to say anything to show that you heard him.

What You Say

Non-verbal cues are powerful, but why stop there? Here are 3 things what you can do to depict empathy with your words:

  1. Jargon is good. At least in some cases. If you’re selling your services to executives who have little clue as to what you do, cut the jargon and use plain English. But if you’re interviewing with a senior in your industry, using technical terms triggers the “part of the enlightened crowd” bias.
  2. Repeat Back. Literally. Repeat your client’s words back. If the client says “My clothing is comfortable and casual but I need someone to…” you say, “You said your clothing is comfortable and casual but you need someone to… Am I right?” By repeating the exact words that your client uses, you verify that you’re on the same page.
  3. Ask Intelligent Questions. And last but not least, ask intelligent questions. Someone who asks about what you think of section IV, subset VIII of the copyright law shows that they understand your world, if you’re a lawyer (that law is totally made up, by the way).

Do you have any tips you’d like to share? I’d love to hear from you!

Andrianes Pinantoan is a freelance writer who is currently part of the team behind Open Colleges’ writing and journalism courses. When not working, he can be found on Google+


If you liked this article, please help spread the news on the following sites:

  • Bump It
  • Blend It
  • Bookmark on Delicious
  • Stumble It
  • Float This
  • Reddit This
  • Share on FriendFeed
  • Clip to Evernote