Emulating Empathy

One of the hardest problems for engineers in founding roles in a startup is interacting with customers up close and personal. Over the years I’ve found the best way to learn to do this is by emulating empathy.

The Problem
I was having dinner in Palo Alto with some of my Stanford engineering students and one of the subjects they were most interested in talking about was “how do you really get out of the building and talk to customers.”  Listening to them reminded me how terribly painful it had been for me.

Data Driven
I was always curious about technology and how things worked, but early in my career, this curiosity didn’t extend to people. I was more comfortable with data.

In my first company, ESL, I sat in secure locations and taught complex intelligence gathering systems to a classroom of maintenance and/or operations students. I was essentially responsible for imparting a fire hose of technical information efficiently. At my next company, Zilog, it was the same – I taught microprocessor system design to engineers. It was all about the efficient transfer of knowledge. High bandwidth, low noise.

But later at Zilog I moved into marketing. While I learned how to write data sheets, product marketing at Zilog was very little “listen to customers” and much more “talk at customers.”  It wasn’t until my next company, Convergent Technologies, that I began to understand the value of customer interaction.  As a product marketing manager, I traveled to customers at the behest of our sales people to impart the latest technical wisdom from the factory. Traveling with these salesmen was eye opening – they were comfortable having conversations with strangers and knew how to build rapport, relationships and trust. These guys explained to me that most people were happy to talk about themselves. My job was just to get the conversation started. Our products improved as our salesmen made customers comfortable enough to share their needs and issues. (As I would find out, every one of these salesmen had been design engineers in their past.  Yet most of the time, they artfully hid how much they knew.)

I began to understand that while my brain was wired to dive into technical minutia and exchange product information at high speed, this wasn’t what most potential customers (and most people who had a modicum of social skills) wanted to do. In fact, unbelievably (to me) most people would trade valuable time in a meeting for social niceties.

Although these social cues were something that still didn’t come naturally to me, I concluded that to get much further in my career, I was going to have to have to learn. Over time, I watched how the best sales people did it and emulated their behavior. I learned how to smile, shake hands, make eye contact rather than stare at my shoes, talk about sports, ask customers about their jobs, their families, etc. and evidence apparent interest in people I didn’t know way before we got to chat about products. I’d even go out to lunch or dinner and manage to hold a conversation. The two hardest things to learn were: how to speak in front of a group and to make “cold calls” by myself. (Every once in awhile I’d run into a customer wired like me who’d say, “Can we cut the chatter and get down to business?” I’d laugh, and we’d do a high-speed data transfer.)

Surprisingly, I learned that listening to customers and others made me more creative. My best ideas started coming from brainstorming with others, something just not possible when communication was a one-way street.

Fast forward a few companies – MIPS and Ardent – I was still learning (at times painfully) to appreciate that facts were outside the building and not between my ears. After a decade in Silicon Valley, I had finally learned to emulate empathy.

Emulating Empathy
By the time I got to SuperMac, the transformation had taken hold. It was here that I began to teach others what I had learned.

I had inherited a manager of technical marketing, much smarter than me but with zero instinct or feel for customers. He was completely data driven, and our sales department wanted him nowhere near customers. I felt like I had just met my doppelganger from ten years ago. We established that his world view was not shared by most customers. And he understood that if he wanted a bigger role in marketing, he was going to have to change. So I ran the first of what would be many “how to emulate empathy” classes.

I described how getting closer to customers was at first going to be a cerebral rather than gut activity. With no instinct to guide him, he would have to consciously precompute what kind of response each situation called for and play them back when appropriate. He was going to have to sign up for public speaking classes. He was going to go on the road with our sales people, but this time he was going to have to watch what they do and start to copy them. I found him a mentor in a salesman who appreciated his technical skill and was willing to let him tag along.

As expected, the first couple of months was tough – on him, sales and customers. We’d debrief after many of his road trips and calls and course correct as necessary.  (At times I’d feel like I was talking to some earlier version of myself.) But by the end of the year, he had learned enough that the VP of Sales asked whether he could move permanently into a presales support role.

Over the next ten years in startups, I repeated this process with others. Today I remind my engineering students that empathy, while seemingly a foreign language, is possible to learn.

As for me, what I had emulated became second nature. Most of the time I can’t tell which mode is running.

Lessons Learned

  • Customer metrics are not the same as customer interaction.
  • Customer interaction is necessary for startup founders.
  • For some it is extremely difficult.
  • If it’s not instinctual customer empathy is a skill that can be taught and learned.

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24 Responses

  1. Thanks! 😀 Going into “education mode” too early is definitely something that cuts off communication between people. Congrats for taking the time to establish connection first. 🙂

  2. I believe that when you can DEVELOP empathy, that’s much more powerful than emulating empathy, which seems somewhat disingenuous. Emulating empathy can result in an ersatz relationship – and customers with any EQ can usually tell when the empathy is emulated and not real.

    Developing empathy is not complicated, although we all find it difficult to pull themselves out of our own egos. It just requires sensitivity, an ability to listen, and enough imagination and life experience to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

    • I agree “emulating empathy” seems disingenuous. Maybe it’s better than nothing but the goal should be to connect at a deeper level with customers. This is a great quote by Scott Cook of Intuit: “Before you can walk a mile in someone else’s shoes you must first remove your own.” http://bit.ly/o0v1j

  3. The last speaker at Stanford Entrepreneur’s Corner mentioned in his talk that his personality type according to Myers-Briggs was INTP. So I looked into this and found out the INTP personality is that of the engineer and architect.


    Here is a description of the INTP.


    The dominant function of the INTP is Introverted Thinking. Also, according to the above article “The INTP is likely to be very shy when it comes to meeting new people. On the other hand, the INTP is very self-confident and gregarious around people they know well, or when discussing theories which they fully understand.”

    According to this article


    “The INTP’s inferior (fourth) function is Extraverted Feeling. This means that the INTP is not naturally in tune with how other people are feeling, or with social expectations. In fact, the INTP is likely to reject the importance of social rituals, rules, and expectations. This is a natural weak point for the INTP”

    “To grow as an individual, the INTP needs to focus on taking in as much information as possible through Extraverted Intuition. He or she needs to allow themself to get into situations that they aren’t necessarily comfortable with, or that are different from the situations that they would normally choose in life. The INTP learns from experience, so the best way for the INTP to grow as a person is to open him or herself to new experiences. Be aware of the tendency to want to run out and do something “new” that is actually just a different opportunity to exercise a known skill.”

    If you are curious about your own Myers-Briggs personality type then you can go to this website and fill in the questionair and it will tell you.



  4. I remember coming back from a sales call and the CTO said “I don’t understand, we won the argument why didn’t we get the business?”

    The best model for emulating empathy I have discovered is “Appreciative Inquiry.” See http://appreciativeinquiry.case.edu/ for an overview; the “Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry” is $8 well spent on an introduction. http://www.amazon.com/Thin-Book-Appreciative-Inquiry-2nd/dp/0966537319

  5. Reminds me of this quote from Zod Nazem, the former CTO of Yahoo: “People don’t change [but they] can learn to become better ‘actors.’’’

    The full article is at http://j.mp/9KpryL

    Please write more about how to emulate empathy. Your personal “checklist” would be awesome. The cold call link was great.

  6. rath의 알림…

    Emulating Empathy. 공감을 에뮬레이션하시다니, 당신이 진정한 오덕입니다. 존경합니다….

  7. Steve,

    Thanks so much for this. I’ve felt similarly, but wasn’t sure how to express it succinctly. I used to work in politics, and my engineering mindset was an asset there (sometimes), but often a detriment. Working with customers instead of distributed systems, I see a lot of the same things I need to do. I too would like a checklist 🙂

  8. […] Emulating Empathy « Steve Blank (tags: startups) […]

  9. With all due respect, Steve, perhaps you should revisit your concepts of empathy. Empathy is not an opposite of being introverted, nor of any variation of social preference or ineptitude. Do you know that lacking empathy is a signature trait of psychopathy? It would be preferable to suppose that you and your colleagues are not actually learning to emulate empathy but rather to improve their social skills and to express whatever degree of empathy they already have. The idea that someone learns to emulate empathy because some form of personality disorder prevents the real thing could be a little disturbing, depending on motivation. I’m not suggesting that sufferers of psychopathy or other empathy-lacking disorder should not find workarounds for their handicap, but they should be seeking qualified medical help rather than trying to deceive (or teach) others. I know some folks with this sort of disorder. Some function reasonably well socially, but putting them in roles where such relationships are important is perhaps not the best idea since emulated empathy is going to be seen through and despised by a lot of customers. OTOH, perhaps you really weren’t talking about empathy at all.

    • Tony,
      The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders has a number of personality disorders where a lack of empathy or social or emotional reciprocity is a symptom. While psychopathy is one of them, you might want to look at: DSM IV Diagnostic Criteria 299.80 See A.4 for Aspergers.

      This Wired article may also be of interest.


    • Thanks for the links, Steve. I confirm not contest the very real empathy problem such disorders can bring. But you say “Today I remind my engineering students that empathy, while seemingly a foreign language, is possible to learn”. There appears to be an assumption on your part that it would be normal for engineering students to lack empathy. I may have reached too far in imagining you were reliant on an introvert stereotype of engineers to associate them with lacking social skills, but I was (and still am) at a loss to understand why you would believe empathy is foreign to engineers. Indeed, a stereotypical engineer (if there is such a thing) is statistically unlikely to be lacking empathy, even if he does happen to be weak in the area of social graces.

  10. I empathize with your early plight as an engineer. I wonder if it would help to teach an empathy course to freshmen engineers while they take physics, math, etc. My equivalent course was as a tutor for math, physics, CS, etc. I came to appreciate the struggles non-engineering students felt as they took the “lesser” b-school math, physics and CS courses which were required but not an integral part of their degrees. After a while I could sense their frustration before they knew what it was that bugged them! It made it a lot easier for me to tutor them quickly (the sessions were incredibly short).

    Thanks for the great article.

  11. This is a great introduction to this topic. I’d love to see more details of how that training works, as I’ve tried to do similar things for engineers in the past. Primarily, I’d love an increased understanding of how to get engineers to understand that they really do need to change if they want to grow outside of their engineering role. The amount of disdain I’ve seen from engineers on this topic is significant (and even heaped out by myself, once upon a time :).

    I’m adding this article to my blog’s “From the Intrawebs” series. Product managers often find themselves mentoring engineers looking to get out from behind the computer.

  12. What about sincerity? Sincerity is very important. If you can fake sincerity you’ve got it made 😉

    • Very much a good point.

      I think the thing about people who don’t establish any sort of rapport tend to come across as insincere. They feel like someone who just wants something from you and don’t care about you as a person.

      By creating a personal rapport and talking about their interests (sports, family, life) you make the person feel like you sincerely care not just about their money/work/data but also about the person. As cheesy as it sounds, people care about it.

      But I’d have to say it varies from culture to culture and person to person. Some cultures find it rude to go right into business while others expect that.

      In general, it’s just good business to not be all about business :). You’re more likely to get honest and frank input from people. Plus, people that are more comfortable are easier to read when you’re pitching or discussing something.

  13. Howdy Steve,

    Listening is one of the most important things I do each day. Whether it’s carefully reading a trusted sources post, or listening to a friend, a colleague or my fiance I do my best to tune in. That type of listening makes conversations very easy, but my block is when I’m talking about a) something I’m not passionate about or b) when someone of authority is talking to me. I feel inhibited in a way that takes something away from my best and I’m not sure how to work around it. So far I’ve tried to dedicate myself to only topics I’m very passionate about, and to be my own boss :).

    Thanks for the continuing education!

    Side note: As I was reading your blog (and listening to an Edge I found this.

  14. […] blog and seems to be a great guy. He also points out a common entrepreneurial challenge in a recent post that I’ll paraphrase — a lot of engineers start companies, and those founders often […]

  15. […] Emulating Empathy « Steve Blank. Filed in Uncategorized « Microsoft Strategy and Execution blog comments powered […]

  16. I’m a new reader here and really love this post.

    The importance of empathy is I think related to the results of the CMO Council’s 2007 survey of business technology buyers on what they look for in tech vendors. Speeds and feeds and price rank much lower than commitment to customer success, expertise and quality of thinking. These latter attributes can really only be effectively demonstrated after the person with the expertise (usually a developer or product manager) has learned empathy.

    Here a link to the study’s results: http://www.marketingcharts.com/direct/cmo-council-customer-affinity-new-measure-of-b2b-marketing-effectiveness-2765/

  17. Steve – it is clear that we should talk to (potential) customers, but how exactly would you frame the conversation?

    I expect people (at least people I know) to agree to a sales-type meeting where something specific is proposed to them, but getting them to agree to spend time talking about hypothetical stuff (“would you have bought this if we had this?”) could be more of a challenge.

    What is your experience, and how would you approach this?

    • Vasily, The first thing that I do is exhale slowly and without looking directly at the person, try to match their respiration rate. Inhale when they inhale, exhale when they exhale. It helps to sense what they are feeling and then when you open your mouth slowly to smile a little at them, the eye contact is easier.

  18. […] and Steve Blank, the popular product management guru, has pointed out that it can actually be difficult to bring yourself to get outside and talk. There is nothing more refreshing than hearing what a customer thinks, and […]

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