The Empathy Gap: 3 tips to help you connect emotionally with your customers

Intelliware put together an Ultimate Frisbee team this summer. We didn’t win very often, but we were a spirited team. Our players travelled back downtown from the all over the city for our 9pm games and even brought their children to cheer us on in the rain. But despite giving it our best shot, the sport wasn’t kind to us. Between pulled muscles and sprained ankles; half our team was injured by season’s end.

The social proof was in the casualties. I should have warmed up, used a brace or stopped altogether, but my newfound love for the sport kept me running. Before the season began, I chastised a friend for being too zealous by injuring herself in her Monday night league. After our final game, I found myself in the same position, limping to the office.

When we make a lapse in judgment, we’re often hard on ourselves. This is because the decisions we consider “foolish” after the fact are often the same decisions we believe are rational at the time we make them. We know better. Other scenarios in this category include grocery shopping on an empty stomach, not saving for the future, or drinking and driving.



The misunderstanding between what we ought to do and what we actually do may be the result of the hot-cold empathy gap. Coined by psychologist George Loewenstein of Carnegie Mellon University, the hot-cold empathy gap explores the idea that human beings cannot accurately predict active or “hot” behaviours in a calm or “cold” state. Hot influences, often visceral in nature, include love, pain, lust, hunger, fear, or fatigue, and we constantly underestimate the impact these influencers have on our actions.

In software development, clients tend to underestimate the effort it takes to practice Agile development. Having experienced the shortcomings of traditional methodologies, the Agile approach makes a lot of sense when it’s proposed and contracts are signed in good faith (the cold state). But when requirements change as we engage actual users, it becomes extremely tempting to fall back on the familiar activities of a more traditional waterfall approach. Deviance from the original plan introduces risks that put us in the hot state of uncertainty and it becomes harder to remember that adapting to change is one of the main ways that Agile development helps us build better software.

Knowing that we can be governed by emotions rather than logic, how can we make better decisions? How can we empathize with our customers, or help our customers empathize with us?

  • Close the gap.
    If you’re trying to persuade a customer to make a decision now for the future, try to replicate the conditions of their future state. For example, if you’re trying to convince your customers to install new windows, approach them on a cold day. has developed a web-based game to close the gap. The game simulates a series of unfortunate events that may cause you to require social assistance. At the end of the simulation, it asks the user to donate a small amount to help those in need.
  • Tell a story.
    Numbers and statistics provide a sense of scale; however, when you want to elicit empathy from your customers, it’s more effective to use case studies because they tell a story. Position your customer as the main character who solves a problem with your help. As you’re crafting your story, remember the following advice from renowned marketer, Seth Godin: “Stories don’t always appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses.” Consequently, creating customer personas helps tell stories, especially when real photos and quotes are used. They help stakeholders create an authentic connection with their end-users.
  • Stop yourself.
    If you know that you’ll be putting yourself in a position where your judgment might be impaired, account for it in advance. Keep junk food out of your home to avoid eating unhealthily. Leave your keys with a designated driver if you plan to drink. Seek a neutral, third party to test your software before you release it.

The empathy gap not only affects our decisions, but it is also the way in which we interact with one another. Remember that our decisions are affected by both logic and emotion. We must remember not to judge others, such as our customers and users, too harshly when they behave unexpectedly. If you can be patient in these situations, you’ll forge stronger relationships because of it.

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