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Business Tools

The Out-of-Touch Effect: The Impact of Isolating Yourself From Your Customers

Research says empathizing with our customers helps us overcome creative blocks and feel more energized than ever.

A degree of success can breed complacency. We grow confident in our creative process and start cruising along in the comfort zone. It feels safe but this is how we can become insulated and out-of-touch. Our performance dips and our ideas start to lose their real-world relevance. If this sounds like you, it could be time to reconnect with your audience – the end-users and customers who will benefit from your best work.   

More than that, you need to step into their shoes. Doing so will pay multiple dividends. You’ll gain insight into your clients’ needs, you’ll be exposed to novel ideas, and most important of all, you’ll discover newfound motivation through seeing the real-life benefits of your efforts. 

A pioneer in this field is Adam Grant, professor of management at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, and author of Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. He points us to a study in 2001 by Rajesh Sethi and Carolyn Nicholson at the Clarkson and Stetson Universities, on the characteristics of highly successful product development teams. Sethi and Nicholson found that a key characteristic of these teams was their use of customer input. Such feedback doesn’t just help in the development of new products, the pair concluded, it also helps to “motivate and energize.”

Why? We’re not robots. It’s easy for the long-term impact of our work to be obscured by short-term tribulations and diverted by short-term gains encountered during the creative process. When we hear the perspective of our audience, it reminds us of why we started our project in the first place.

When we hear the perspective of our audience, it reminds us of why we started our project in the first place.

This energizing influence is most powerful if you can meet your end-users face-to-face. Consider an influential field study Grant conducted himself. The research involved undergrads working as fundraisers: their task, often thankless, was to ring up alumni and ask them to donate money.

One day an anthropology student was invited to the callers’ workplace and spoke to them for 15 minutes about how she’d used a research fellowship made possible by the fundraising office to finance her travel and data-collection. The trip (and thus, the fundraising center) had effectively helped her career.

A month later, the fundraising callers who met the student had achieved an average five-fold increase in the amount of money they raised weekly compared to callers who weren’t there the day the student visited.

Grant says the contact with the student had a beneficial impact on the fundraisers’ performance via several mechanisms. The workers:

  • got to see first-hand the impact of their work
  • enjoyed a sense of the student’s appreciation for their efforts
  • picked up ideas that improved the creativity of their selling techniques,
  • better empathized with the needs of the student (and thus, all customers).

Intriguingly, many of the fundraisers denied the student visit had made any difference to them, which suggests these effects can act at a subconscious level.

Making the time to interact with your clients will similarly help you take their perspective. As happened with the fundraisers, this could generate new leads that will improve your work; and you’ll enjoy a boost from connecting with your clients on a human level. After all, the joy of helping others is a powerful motivator. 

Of course it’s not always possible to meet clients face-to-face, but there are still benefits to be had from simply taking the time to remind yourself of the people who will gain from your work. To illustrate, Grant highlights the unpublished findings of radiologist Yehonatan Turner. A few years ago Turner found that including patients’ photos in medical files led radiologists to be more meticulous in their analysis of the patients’ scans. The radiologists said the photos helped them empathize more with the patients.

The joy of helping others is a powerful motivator.

Grant has proposed other ways you can take the perspective of your clients. For example, you can visit online communities that are frequented by your end-users and see the kind of problems they raise. You can use social media to connect directly with your client base and get a feel for their needs. If you work in a company, make sure the department that interacts with customers is not isolated from other teams. Encourage them to provide anecdotes and reports on a regular basis.

Also, be present when people experience your product or work. For example, mingle discreetly with the audience who are viewing your art. Sit in on an introductory workshop for the software that you created. Visit a newsstand and watch how browsers respond to your latest magazine cover. Even if your creative role is far removed from real world applications, you still gain motivationally by reminding yourself of the end-users in this way.  

Although you may be churning out plenty of new ideas and products, without considering the perspective of your end-users it’s possible your output and drive are sub-optimal. Re-connect with your clients, assume their perspective, and not only will you gain practical insights, you’ll also inject your work with new meaning and purpose.

How about you?

How do you reconnect with your customers?

More Posts by Christian Jarrett

Dr. Christian Jarrett seeks out exciting new research and showcases its relevance for life. A psychologist turned writer, he’s a senior editor at Aeon. His next book will be about personality change. He is @Psych_Writer on Twitter.

Comments (10)
  • fungus_Amongus

    excellent, thought-provoking stuff…wow lots of red meat here (or tofu if that’s your thing 🙂

    • Christian Jarrett

      thanks for your kind feedback

  • Simon Therrien

    Great post. “The joy of helping others is a powerful motivator.” so true. Thank you Christian.

    • Christian Jarrett

      thanks Simon!

  • Betsarama

    Such excellent advice. I am in the process of shutting down a transcription service I’ve owned and operated for 32 years (more than half my life), and maybe my only regret was an insurrmountable reticence to engage my customers; ask how our transcripts were used during report writing or video production, or ask how we could do things to make their jobs even easier. As it was, everyone loved our work, and I told myself that staying in the background, working quickly and diligently – quiet as a mouse – the way good waiters say nothing but always seem to be there when you need them was the proper position. Reading this article, I’m realizing my reticence was actually fear of rejection; that I would annoy them, add more pressure to already high-pressure days. Well, there may be some truth to that too, but had I tried, I think I would have enjoyed work more. So find the courage to reach out to your customers.

  • growthguided

    I find one of the best originators of ideas comes from getting out of myself. When im stuck in a bind with business and can’t get the wheels to connect I pull myself out of the project and throw myself completely into the care of someone elses needs.

    Thank you for the great reminder Christian

  • Ann-Marie Everitt

    This article has helped me reflect on how I stay fresh and present and clear. Quite simply it has been the practice of gratitude, and now reading Christian’s comments I am motivated to develop and integrate a more mindful giving practice. I am reviewing how I give to people in every aspect of my life, what are my motivations, what I am really offering of myself, am I really in sync? Thanks for the tune up!

  • Medialoot

    I really like the idea of looking for questions posted on social media, and then offering to help for free. Not only does it help you gain a reputation of being knowledgeable, but it also allows you just to help others. Great post, Christian!

  • Medialoot

    That’s rough!

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