The Rise of Empathy

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In our company's annual listing of Customer Experience Trends for 2014, I labeled 2014 as "The Year of Empathy."

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines empathy as "the ability to imagine oneself in another's place and understand the other's feelings, desires, ideas, and actions." Empathy is what allows us to tailor our behaviors to meet the needs of other people.

Many studies show that people are naturally empathetic. If that's so, why do organizations show so little empathy for their customers?

The makeup of large organizations saps empathy from employees in a couple of ways. The first is by removing thinking from their jobs. As "professional management" has grown over the last few decades, employees have been increasingly viewed as operational components, cogs within a system that need to be controlled in order to optimize results. As employees are asked to comply with more rules and think less about how they do their jobs, they naturally think less about the implications of what they're doing--and how it affects customers.

Then there's the problem with organizational silos. While a typical customer interaction cuts across many functional groups, companies push employees to stay focused on their functional areas. This myopic view limits the ability to understand the true experience of customers, keeping employees' innate empathy in check.

As companies increasingly focus on customer experience, they will recognize that their organizations lack a deep understanding and appreciation for their customers. It's not a flaw in the people, just a natural result of how organizations operate. To break this pattern, companies need to learn to "guide with empathy," one of the principles of what the Temkin Group calls People-Centric Experience Design. Here are a few steps for putting this concept into action.

  • Examine your customer's journey. It's not always practical to break up silos and organize around customers, but companies can still overcome siloed internal perspectives. How? By building a strong understanding of their customer's journey. Customer journey mapping can be a very helpful tool in learning what customers are trying to accomplish, and understanding the path they take to achieve their goals. Often, there are important steps that don't even include the company.
  • Refer to customers as people. Stanley Marcus, former president and chairman of the board of Neiman Marcus, was quoted as saying, "Consumers are statistics. Customers are people." Your data may show that 62 percent of your customers are female, 55 percent of your customers live in the suburbs, that they have an average of 2.3 children and own 1.5 cars, but that does not describe any real person. To spark empathy, it's important to talk about customers in a way that employees can relate to them.
  • Infuse customer feedback into daily routines. Don't just examine customer feedback when it shows up in a monthly or quarterly report; embed it into your day-to-day activities. Every day, prior to the start of their shift, Apple retail employees get together and review feedback from clients who recently interacted with the store. This daily huddle keeps customers' needs top of mind.
  • Share customers' actual words. Reports tend to eliminate the emotional element of customer feedback, making it easier to ignore. There's nothing more powerful than hearing what a customer is thinking in her own voice. Adobe created a Customer Listening Post, which is an immersive room where executives and employees across the company can listen to live calls and review chats with customers.
  • Talk about customer emotions. Organizations often discuss customers as if they are inanimate objects. Every time a customer interacts with your company, he or she has a range of five distinct emotions: anger, agitation, ambivalence, appreciation, and adoration. To trigger empathy, front-line employees can keep a checklist to identify which emotion they think customers have after an interaction.
  • Empower acts of kindness. Encourage employees to go out of their way for customers. Disney trains its staff on a program called Take Five, where employees are expected to take five minutes from their normal daily duties to be "aggressively friendly" with customers. Ritz-Carlton entrusts every staff member to spend up to $2,000 on a guest.

For more about guiding with empathy, go to http://bit.ly/1duvUN7.

Bruce Temkin is customer experience transformist and managing partner of Temkin Group, a research and consultancy firm focused on enterprise-wide customer experience transformation. He is also the chair and cofounder of the Customer Experience Professionals Association (CXPA.org) and author of the blog Customer Experience Matters (experiencematters.wordpress.com).

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