Building Empathy For a Customer
Almost every company claims to be customer focused and probably every employee on the surface talks about the importance of a customer-centric mindset. But deep inside, people can have a different attitude. Is it even possible to make all employees to really care, to feel for a customer?
Over the last 2 years I had enjoyed several excellent conversations with the team at INSEAD in Singapore. I always get a tremendous value from bringing the frames of academia into my professional field. The knowledge and insight from the business school have help me in the ongoing balancing act between structure-centric (i.e., consultant mindset) and content-centric (i.e., industry professional mindset) approach to solving problems.
Recently I had a conversation with Philip Anderson from INSEAD about my favorite subject of customer experience. Already at the beginning, Philip asked an excellent question “How do you build empathy for a customer across the entire organization?” I really liked the question, because it goes to the core of a common problem: How do we make our employees to really care about customers? In the customer experience field, we often talk about “building customer-centric culture” or “walking in customer shoes”. But none of those is as fundamental as what Philip distilled in his question about “the empathy for customers”. Really, how do we make our people emotionally engaged in the relationship with customers?
Here are a couple of thoughts on how to make the employees care about a customer:
1. Face time with customers
Let’s start with the easy one, the principle which is often well known, but not necessarily always effectively practiced. Apart from the front line, people in your organization sitting in their offices, cubicles or meeting rooms are distant from real customers. This is even more pronounced in an international organization, where global headquarters have several degrees of separation between their people and the end-customers in each country.
To build an affinity, employees need to experience actual interactions with customers, face them directly in person and respond to their inquiries. This does not mean a field trip of managers from headquarter to a shop or call center, shaking hands with staff and taking pictures. This means truly putting employees in the front line and let them serve customers, answer calls or sell products. Supervised by the actual front line staff ready to step in and support, but still enabling the natural interaction and understanding to evolve.
2. The power of stories
Often the problems of customers seem distant, hidden in numbers inside dashboards or in colorful charts as parts of heavy slide decks. Apart from teams involved in the management of customer experience, people in the organization do not pay attention to customers’ problems other than to those which they perceive as directly related to their departments. Customer as a person is often reduced to data or a metric. This is where the power of stories comes in. As humans, we relate more to a narrative than to a number or to a performance indicator. Brene Brown puts this nicely, “Stories are data with a soul.”
Stories about customers and their experience are more vivid and trigger a stronger emotional response in a recipient. Narrate real stories of your customers about their use of your services and drive the empathy of your employees. This approach works for both positive and negative stories. Apply the balance in the sentiment, harnessing the empathy for struggles from infamous stories and the power of positive reinforcement from the great ones.
3. Shared customer insight
In a large organization, each department has own set of measures complemented with the overall set of measures for the top management or an executive committee. The insight about the customer is often present only in the top management set (e.g., customer satisfaction results) and utilized by teams within the commercial functions. Alternatively, there can be a dedicated market research and insight team providing inputs mostly just for Marketing. The valuable and often interesting customer insights do not reach outside the commercial function. Teams such as Finance or IT do not get exposure to customer insight at all.
I am often surprised how well non-commercial people receive and are interested in studies about customers, their behavior or preferences. This is almost a quick win, but just by sharing customer insight studies across the entire organization and including non-commercial teams into the distribution and adoption increases the feeling of all your teams for a customer.
4. Everybody in the customer journey
Teams in your company distant from the customer can feel that everything they do, they do for the company. Their only customer is the company, the manager and other teams. They never see and realize, how the deliverables of their work actually affect the customer. Sometimes they believe that they do not have any impact on the customer and as a result, do not see customers as relevant for their work at all.
There are several ways how to identify specific impact of each employee on a customer. The traditional one is to map the entire customer journey and recognize relationships of customer interactions with each team in the organization. The best way is to do such exercise jointly, during a series of workshops with each functional team. As an example of a result, IT teams might often be extremely surprised after they realize how much they affect the customer with a simple inefficient back-end tool. Once the employee realizes his or her contribution in the customer journey, their empathy increases.
5. Relevant analogies
Employees have often a strong perception that just because they use the products and services of their employer, they are also real customers and project themselves as the representation of a regular customer. This could not be further from the truth and while obvious in retrospect, this bias is still extremely prevalent.
Employees have a completely different experience that customers from the market since they have often special process and depending on the size of the company, their journey can be different at almost all of its components. For example in a telecom company, employees get their service from HR, use special tariffs and have a dedicated support. In banks, employees have dedicated internal account managers and service activation follows a different process comparing to what a real customer experiences. Employee’s experience using the service is completely different from the experience of a regular customer.
I face the same bias when I work for a mobile operator. To avoid the above perception trap, I have another phone with a service from a competitor, for which I am just a regular customer and as such, I get exposure to a real customer journey of a telco customer in a country.
Using services of a competitor is not always practical, but your employees are using services of other, similar companies. For telecoms, a good reference would be a bank, airline, hotel chain... Relate your employees to your customers through their experiences as customers of companies from similar industries. How do they feel when they call the call center of an airline or bank, visit an electronics store and got to an e-commerce website? You can draw analogies between interactions of your customers and interactions of your employees with companies from similar industries.