Empathy in Action: Sustaining Success with Customers

“The purpose of business is to create and keep a customer.”

“The aim of marketing is to know and understand the customer so well the product or service fits him and sells itself.

Peter Drucker

Its not difficult to find support for what appears to be an ultimate truth; customer-centricity is THE central element of business success.  Since virtually every business leader espouses this truth, it must be great to be a customer!

Unfortunately, in practice, fragmented roles and accountabilities for the wide range of activities associated with “being in business” tend to create issues.  Surprisingly few organizations actually behave in a way that’s customer-centric and, as you know, being a “customer” is often frustrating.    According the national reporting body for the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), customer satisfaction “continues on the path it has been for quite some time now: in the aggregate, it is going nowhere.”

 

Issue:  Customer – Object versus Person

After having the chance to work with the leaders of many dozens of companies, I’ve noticed a distinguishing feature of organizations that engage with customers in a way that fuels continued innovation and economic success.   It starts with how leaders and people throughout with organization think about and talk about their customers.

According to dictionary.com, customer means…

  1. A person who purchases goods or services from another; buyer; patron.
  2. Informal.  A person one has to deal with: a tough customer; a cool customer.

The foundation of this definition is “person.”   A customer is a person or, in the case of business-to-business, often a network of people.   A distinguishing characteristic of organizations that sustain success with customers is their ability to engage with customers as people.   This seems like it should be easy.   However, even casual conversations with leaders in many businesses reveal that the organization is focused on customers not as people but as objects.

According to dictionary.com, “objectify” means…

  1. To present or regard as an object
  2. To make objective, external, or concrete.

Objectifying people generally involves intentionally or unintentionally treating them as a means to an end, without any deep, visceral understanding of their lives, feelings, priorities or preferences.    As a result, organizational behavior tends to be at best – reactive, and at worst, self-serving and manipulative.

There are several indicators of businesses that objectify customers.  People in leadership positions don’t spend much time in open dialogue with customers about what they need and what’s working and not working about their experience.   Insights about customers tend to be surface-level descriptions.  Conversations about customers tend to be abstract and removed rather than concrete and personal.   People on the front line may be following the process but, at best, “pretending to care.”  The company might measure customer satisfaction with the company’s touch points but doesn’t really know what customers do end-to-end, how they make choices, and how the overall experience makes them feel.

These characteristics stand in stark contrast to businesses that appear immersed in their customers’ lives and, as a result, deliver a very personal, human experience.   As consumers, we recognize these businesses.  They range from the small and local (e.g., your favorite restaurant or local retail establishment) to the larger scale businesses of which my favorites include Chick-fil-A, Zappos, Nordstrom, Umpqua Bank, and Apple.

Personifying Customers:  Empathy in Action

In order to create real loyalty and sustain customer-focused innovation, organizations need to adopt a discipline for personifying customers.   This is even more critical as organizational transparency increases.  Personifying customers includes structured ways to embed empathy in the core processes of customer discovery, design and delivery.   Empathy is the identification with or vicarious experiencing of the situations, feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.   The core processes include:

  • Empathic Discovery.  Most of what companies know about their customers tends to be descriptive and data driven:  who they are, where they live, what they’ve purchased, how long they’ve been a customer, etc… There may be a segmentation analysis that groups customers by attitudes, etc… However, in most cases, there is no rigorous framework for personifying customers in a way that builds empathic understanding.  This includes structured ways to answer:  who are these people, what are the situations they’re in, what’s important to them and what are they trying to accomplish, how do they evaluate alternatives and make choices, what do they do outside of the limited set of contacts with our business, and what emotional states influence behavior?  
  • Empathic Design.  Empathic design leverages empathic discovery in order to create products that allow customers to more easily accomplish the goals that are important to them.  This includes designing products and services that customers love because they’re meaningful and make them feel good.  This often includes the design of products, services, or modes of interaction that customers don’t even know they desire or, in some cases, solutions that customers have difficulty envisioning due to lack of familiarity with the possibilities offered by new technologies or because locked in a old mindset.
  • Empathic Delivery.  Customer service is a monologue; it’s about technical delivery, standards, and execution.  The company decides what to do and how to do it.  Well-designed and executed customer service usually does a good job of meeting customers’ baseline needs and expectations.  On the other hand, empathic delivery is a dialogue.    It’s about watching a customer’s experience with every sense and following up with a thoughtful and appropriate response that demonstrates that you really care and are on their side.   It enables the organization to surround products and programmatic services with personal touch.

Unfortunately (and fortunately for competitors), empathic delivery is rare in the business world.  Processes, policies, metrics, resource constraints, as well as more deeply entrenched unwritten rules often get in the way.  Since empathic delivery cannot be fully scripted, it leads to significant implications for the employee experience.  Employees must have enough “elbow room” to do the right thing for customers.  This requires a deliberately designed pattern of interventions in the employee experience including recruiting, incorporating, training, communicating, measurements, and rewards.  It also involves surfacing the unwritten rules that may be driving employee behavior inconsistent with the desired customer experience.

Integrating Customer and Employee Experience

Not surprisingly, putting empathy into action requires a tightly integrated perspective on customers and employees.   You can’t treat customers with empathy without doing the same for employees.   This is one of the reasons that many of the companies that appear on Fortune’s list of best places to work are businesses that deliver a very effective customer experience.   However, as covered in several previous posts, a highly engaged workforce is necessary but not sufficient.  (See:  A Break in the Service Profit Chain:  Why Increases in Employee Engagement Don’t Improve the Customer Experience).  In addition, if you’re interested, please feel free to check out the white paper titled:   “Getting the Employee Experience Right:  Creating Employee Experiences that Drive Business Growth.”

Customer Innovations works with leading brands to “embed empathy” into the design and delivery of experiences that are both positive for customers and profitable as well as strategically relevant for the business.

One Response

  1. Thanks for an interesting and informative article. I learned this the hard way. When I work with a client while we look at her ultimate goal(s) for our work together, we spend as long as it takes clearing out everything that’s holding her back. Since it’s such a useful tool for my clients I thought, why not write a book for everyone because of course EVERYONE “needs” to get rid of what they’re putting up with! Hmmm. No Empathic Discovery…Bestseller? Not.

    I have a question though…I had just been collecting a list of “the worst advice or comments” for my MS website and was amazed that the MS patients’ responses were so enthusiastic (“you’ve got to write a book!!”), emotional and moving. I rode the wave of their enthusiasm believe I’ve used empathic design for my new book, “The Dumbest Things Smart People Say to Folks with MS”. Here’s the question…what would empathic delivery look like here?

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