• September 29, 2017
  • By Paul Greenberg, founder and managing principal, The 56 Group

A Customer-Engaged Company Has Empathy in Its DNA

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Almost all these are already offered by most airlines, but for Ryanair this was a significant customer-centric move. Yet it also highlights the difference between the motivations for customer-centric and customer-engaged behavior. Customer-centric activities, while benefiting customers, might be done for reasons that have nothing to do with customers as partners or part of a mutual value exchange.

I submit into evidence Ryanair CEO Michael O’Leary’s statement after the success of Always Getting Better: “If I’d only known being nice to customers was going to work so well, I’d have started many years ago.”

Boo. Give me a break. This isn’t empathy; it’s just cold-hearted business. The changes were made to benefit Ryanair; if they didn’t, they wouldn’t have been made. His attitude also violates a fundamental principle of an empathetic company: that it needs to be made up of empathetic people from the top down.

So what do you do to make a company empathetic?

1. Listen to customers—and detractors. Customers who are buying from you often have something to say about you. Those who really don’t like you have their reasons. Find out what the customers are thinking and saying, and really hear it, even if it is painful. Taking feedback good and bad is important, but equally important is doing something with it and reporting back to those who gave it. The reporting-back aspect is most often disregarded, but feedback providers will have no idea whether you’re listening if you don’t tell them how you’ve responded. Plus there is skin in the game for the business if it takes the responsibility to report back.

2. Ethics, diversity, sustainability, and corporate philanthropy are all active C-level and board responsibilities. Salesforce has a corporate equality officer, Tony Prophet, whose entire job is to see that ethics, diversity, and sustainability are all part of the corporate portfolio and the corporate culture, regardless of their direct relationship to sales. Salesforce.com handles corporate philanthropy via its Salesforce Foundation, which had given out around $600 million in grants by the end of 2016.

3. It starts from the top. The CEO on down must be able to reflect and transmit that empathy. This should be not only publicly obvious but reflected in the actions of the company’s leading individuals. In 2015, my wife and I had to cancel a cruise on Oceania Cruises due to a death in the family. We had insurance so we were covered on getting reimbursed for this rather expensive vacation. But in all our interactions with the company, not only did we barely hear, “Sorry for your loss,” which would have been tolerable by itself, but there was also an enormous and disturbing emphasis on “We don’t owe you any money because your cancellation was last-minute”—despite the fact we weren’t even asking for anything. We have never taken that cruise line again, all because of the lack of empathy. Or, in this case, even sympathy.

4. Transparency and accountability should be policy, not buzzwords. Customers want to know who you are as a company and how you conduct your business. If you are an empathetic company, you want to let them know about you, good or bad. Sandvik, the European mining and construction tools and machinery manufacturer, has a publicly available code of conduct that is the foundation of its operations and governance. The policy and procedures outlined make it publicly accountable. It also includes itself in the Financial Times Stock Exchange FTSE4Good index, which is listed as a sustainability index but covers far more than that. As a result of its openness as a policy, Sandvik has been included for eight consecutive years in the RobecoSAM Sustainability Yearbook, a highly prestigious yearbook that awards companies that have overachieved in sustainability categories. The results are a profitable $10.5 billion company that is trusted worldwide.

If you have the trust of customers, and you’re empathetic down to your DNA, you’ll be well on your way to a customer-engaged culture. But there’s still more you have to do. In the next and final installment, we’ll cover the rest. (I’ll leave you in suspense as to what that entails, though trust that I feel the pain of your not knowing.)

Paul Greenberg is the managing principal of The 56 Group, a customer strategy company. He is the author of CRM at the Speed of Light, which is in nine languages and is currently in its fourth edition. He is also the author of the upcoming The Commonwealth of Self Interest: Customer Engagement, Business Benefit (Harvard Business Press, 2018).

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