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Wired To Care February 12, 2012

Posted by Laura Brandner in Wired to Care.

At least eight times a day, every day, for two weeks.  That’s how often I tested my blood glucose as part of a clinical study at work (Abbott Diabetes Care).  I had two transmitters adhered to my body, carried around two glucose meters (that couldn’t be more than 10 ft away at any time), and lugged supplies like test strips, lancets, a lancing device, and hand sanitizer with me at all times.  I had volunteered for this study for the experience.  I wanted to get a small glimpse into what life was like for someone with diabetes – understand their frustrations with a product, prick my fingers constantly, figure out how to test discreetly, and feel what it was like to answer the inevitable questions I would get when testing.

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Around the time I started the study I also started reading Wired To Care, by Dev Patnaik.  The book focuses on how empathy for customers can help companies create better products and services, and even how this empathy can create meaning around one’s job.  As I turned the pages and felt the pricks in my fingers, I identified completely.

The book describes many compelling examples that show how empathy for customers has created value for companies.  It shows how companies thrive by hiring the customers they are serving (Microsoft’s Xbox, Harley Davidson, Nike), how companies struggle when they lose touch with their customers (Maxwell House’s Robusta Blend, American car manufacturers’ incentive for employees to buy only the cars they make), and how companies’ close contact with customers helps them adapt over time (Zildjian cymbals, London Farmers’ Markets).  All the stories demonstrate that in order for companies to succeed, they should rely on the human impulse to care.  People want to do what is right; the issue may just be that the employees are so removed from the customers that the company forgets who it is serving.  This connects closely with the problem reframing we are learning about in class.  One needs to understand the customer’s issues and circumstances to define the true problem before creating something that works for them.


The book gives more stories and examples than actual tools to create empathy, but there are a few suggestions:

1. Make it easy

2. Make it everyday

3. Make it experiential

Some examples of these tactics include:

– Target headquarters in Minneapolis has a Target store next door so employees can easily hang out with shoppers

– Sporting goods company Spalding built basketball courts outside the main office so employees are encouraged to use their products constantly

– Nike headquarters in Beaverton, OR has miles of running trails on campus and images/memorabilia of their athletes everywhere so employees are inspired and energized


For some companies it would be more difficult for employees to walk in customers’ shoes (investment firms, pharmaceutical companies, senior citizen care), but the effort should be made to truly understand the customer and what matters to them.

At my company, we get constant reminders of the people we serve.  We have letters up around the office from customers who say how much we’ve helped them manage their disease.  At all-hands meetings, we see videos of families where young children are growing up with diabetes and how our products become integral parts of their lives.  Once a year we have a “Connect to a Customer” event where we get the opportunity to listen to customer service calls and hear what customers are saying about our products.  It is eye-opening to hear real-time examples of issues people have with things we think are so intuitive.  Since we are so close to the product, it is important to step back and realize how people are using them in the real world.  It is also important to step back and realize the impact we are having on peoples’ lives.

The last few chapters of the book begin to focus on how corporate empathy can actually make an organization a better place to work.  When employees feel like their work is valued and that they are part of something larger, the work is more meaningful.  All products and services do have the potential to make someone’s life better; it just may take some digging to figure out the right message for both the customer and the employees.  A strong connection to the people with diabetes I serve makes it easier for me to go to work and know that what I do is important to someone’s well being.

Since humans truly are wired to care, we should focus on cultivating that to make our careers and companies more valuable.  This book helps bring examples of empathy to life and shows how widespread empathy can make a positive change in organizations.



1. shangsong0 - February 12, 2012

I feel one can not understand empathy fully just from using the product produced by the very same company. The examples given are those empolyees using their own companies’ products. To full understand the concept of empathy, I think those employees should also experience what products their competitors have to offer for the same customer.

lbrandner - February 14, 2012

Hi Shang – Thanks for the comment. I agree with you and think the example of the American auto manufacturers ties in with your concerns here. As the Big 3 are all located in Detroit and the companies give huge discounts to their employees to buy their cars, the employees’ view of the world is skewed. They see a majority of American-made cars on the road and are incentivized to buy products that their company makes. Since they have a narrow view of the marketplace, they do not experience the same struggles and frustrations as other car buyers and may miss something out there that is better. This was an example of companies losing touch with their customers by becoming so caught up in their own product.

shangsong0 - February 16, 2012

Hi Laura – Thanks for your reply! What you said is a great example of companies losing touch with the reality. Just curious, for the blood glucose clinical study, did you have to take any sort of new testing prescriptions at same time?

2. Joyce Bao - February 13, 2012

It almost seems that the suggestions posed by the book are a bit intuitive, but I like how you talked about your personal experience with customer empathy and tied it to the main message from the book. I think especially in a large corporation, employees can easily get lose track of the ultimate end user that they are trying to serve. Thus, I think it is especially important in large corporations to emphasize the importance of their customers among employees, even for employees whose responsibilities at work are far removed from the end user.

lbrandner - February 14, 2012

Hi Joyce – Thanks for your comments. Many of the examples do seem easy and obvious, but I think that is the point. In our Problem Finding, Problem Solving class, we just talked about how “insights are hiding in plain sight”. If companies make empathy really hard to do, no one is going to do it. It has to be easy and everyday, as the book mentions. It is likely a culture shift for a lot of organizations.

3. Marta Karolak - February 13, 2012

I find it interesting that you list “investment firms, pharmaceutical companies, senior citizen care” as companies for which you think it would be harder for employees to walk in customers’ shoes. Can you elaborate why those stand out to you? They are not ones that readily come to mind for me. Is there something in the book that made you specifically think of these?

lbrandner - February 14, 2012

Hi Marta – Thanks for your comments. I actually struggled a bit to come up with examples of where creating empathy might be harder, but I think for these examples it is very difficult to “hire your customers” which was one thing that the book kept coming back to as an easy way to create/promote empathy. In the situations I mentioned, the organization would have to spend more time observing the customers rather than just becoming the customers to understand their issues, concerns, problems, and wishes. The observation piece takes more work and it is harder to involve the whole company in it. It’s not that empathy is impossible in these organizations, just that it would take more work and therefore might not be as prevalent.

Would love to hear some of your thoughts on organizations where empathy might be harder to create.

4. jhpittman - February 16, 2012

I’m not sure I have an example of a company where empathy is difficult to create – but we do see whole industries that are empathy challenged. Tom Wujec – who will be speaking on March 5 recently was at an association of retail bankers and he showed me a video of how shocked they were that their customers were annoyed with them

5. Laura Brandner - February 20, 2012

Hi Shang – I can’t reply directly to your comment for some reason, but I’ll try to answer your question. (Feel free to email me if you have anything specific you want to ask!) Basically, the point of the study was to test some new sensor technology for our continuous blood glucose monitoring system (hence the transmitters and receivers). I was testing on my fingers to see how closely those glucose values matched up with the values being captured by the sensor which measures a little differently. Some people with diabetes test upwards of 10x per day, so it was a pretty “realistic” study in that sense.

6. Dev Patnaik - February 21, 2012

Hi Laura,

Thanks so much for your thoughtful review of “Wired to Care.” I was fascinated to hear about your own experiences in gaining empathy for the people you serve.

Your experience does highlight the central challenge of the subject: the people who most “get” what I’m talking about are already doing it. I’m preaching to the converted. Conversely, some of the folks who could most benefit from gaining empathy may never read the book. Recognizing this, my real goal was to provide meaningful cases and arguments that might equip folks like yourself to be effective champions of change. In the process, perhaps I could even tip a few folks who were just on the cusp of making a shift. So I’ve started telling people that if they like “Wired to Care” they should give their copy away to someone who they think won’t like it. : )

Thanks again for the review.


Laura Brandner - February 23, 2012

Hi Dev – Thank you so much for reading my review and commenting. I’ll definitely be an empathy champion and look forward to sharing the stories of widespread empathy in my career.

7. Marina Shrago - February 24, 2012

Hi Laura –
Now that it’s been a month and the first impression had the chance to settle, do you find that your daily experience as an employee changed? Do you do anything differently? Did you get new ideas for your job? For the company as whole?

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