Welcome to 2014, The Year of Empathy

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Customer Strategy
Customer Experience
Here are six recommendations to help guide companies to becoming empathetic of customers.

In my post, 14 Customer Experience Trends for 2014, I labeled 2014 as "The Year of Empathy."

As companies increasingly focus on customer experience in 2014, 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 an internal focus on day-to-day operations. In 2014, we'll hear more executives talking about the need to build "empathy" for customers, making "empathy" the CX word for 2014.

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." While people may want to be empathetic, they are-as we describe in the Six Laws of Customer Experience-self-centered, naturally viewing the world, and making decisions based on their internal perspective.

As employees, people tend to have a unique frame of reference which often includes a deeper than average understanding of their company's products, organizational structure, and operating processes. If left unchecked, decisions will reflect this frame of reference, leading to products and interactions that often don't meet the needs of customers who have less interest and less insight into these details of the company.

Organizational dynamics add another barrier to empathy. While a typical customer interaction cuts across many functional groups (a single purchase, for instance, may include contact with decisions by product management, sales, marketing, accounts payable, and legal organizations), companies push employees to stay focused on their functional areas. This myopic view is often reinforced by incentives focused on narrow domains, which creates a chasm between empathy and personal success.

How can you break this pattern? By learning to Guide with Empathy, one of the principles of People-Centric Experience Design. Here are some recommendations:

  • Refer to customers as people, not data. Your data may show that your average customer is 57 percent female, have 1.7 children, own 1.3 cars, and lives 62 percent in the suburbs, but that doesn't describe any real person. To spark empathy, it's important to talk about customers in a way that employees can relate to them.
  • Examine your customer's journey. To overcome siloed internal perspectives, examine how customers go about their lives and just happen to interact with you. This requires qualitative (often ethnographic) research with your target customers. Companies often use customer journey maps to capture this information.
  • Discuss customer feedbackoften. Don't just examine customer feedback on a monthly or quarterly basis; 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 had recently interacted with the store. This daily huddle keeps customers' needs top of mind.
  • Spread customers' actual words. There's something powerful about hearing what customers are thinking in their 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.
  • Raise awareness of customer's emotional state. Every time a customer interacts with your company, they have a range of emotional reactions. We've identified five distinct emotions: angry, agitated, ambivalent, appreciative, and adoring. Why not have your frontline employees keep a checklist for identifying which of the five emotions customers have after an interaction.
  • Empower random acts of kindness. Create an environment that encourages employees to go out of their way for customers. Ritz-Carlton entrusts every single staff member, without approval from their general manager, to spend up to $2,000 on a guest. Disney trains its staff on a program called Take Five where cast members (employees) are expected to take five minutes from their normal daily duties to do something special for their guests; they call it being aggressively friendly.

Throughout the year, Temkin Group will be doing research on and writing about empathy, helping people infuse empathy across their organizations. Join me in raising the level of empathy in 2014.

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