People often get the two words mixed up. Both have the same “pathos” root (Greek for “suffering”), so it’s not surprising.
Sympathy means suffering “with” i.e. feeling compassion toward the suffering of another.
Empathy means suffering “into” i.e. feeling the same suffering as another.
There’s not a lot of space between the two, but in business, it can mean the difference between success and failure.
If you have sympathy with customer because he thinks your products sucks, this might make you want to politely say, “I’m sorry you don’t like it” and get the poor fellow off the phone ASAP.
But if you have empathy, this means you hate the fact that your product sucks just as much as your customer does, which makes you a lot more likely to go and make it better.
Which is why behind every great product is a person who had the same problem as their customer, and was bugged enough about it to go out of his or her way to fix it.
Which is why behind every mediocre product is a guy who didn’t care one way or the other, but just wanted to make a quick buck.
So if you’re hearing a lot of business-guru types talking a lot about “the power of empathy”, that is why. It really is the killer app.