Unlike other primates, the whites of human beings’ eyes (our “sclera”) are quite large and visible, which in evolutionary terms is something of a puzzle, because it makes us more visible in the dark. And being more visible in the dark would seem to give human beings a big disadvantage when it comes to hiding from predators.
However, this particular result of human evolution turns out to be a feature, not a bug. Having large, visible sclera allows human beings to follow the gazes of other humans quite easily. We can clearly see what others of our own species are looking at or paying attention to. In evolutionary terms, in other words, human beings really are made for face-to-face communication.
In Reclaiming Conversation, psychologist Sherry Turkle argues that conversational interaction is psychology’s primary tool precisely because, to join in a conversation is “to imagine another mind, to empathize, and to enjoy gesture, humor, and irony in the medium of talk.”
Before the rise of large, branded consumer goods, when virtually all sales took place directly between two human beings—a buyer and a store proprietor (or other seller) —face-to-face encounters were the primary means by which all customer interactions took place. And if you want to know how to create a more empathic relationship with your customers today, just have a look at how small businesses still operate. Most proprietors at independent restaurants or shops, or at other “mom-and-pop” operations know very well how empathy, based on face-to-face interaction, can be a genuine business asset.
Even in an economy chock full of electronic, impersonal customer interactions, there are still mechanisms you can use to signal empathy to your customers. Most firms use social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter simply to promote their products and services, in nearly the same way they promote themselves in traditional print and broadcast media. But social media platforms have far more potential as empathy platforms.
Twitter, for instance, is an ideal instrument for making authentic connections with customers. Belinda Parmar, in her book The Empathy Era, suggests, “Businesses that use Twitter well—those that treat their customers like real people, that aren’t afraid to engage in conversations about problems or issues with their services, that show themselves to have a sense of humor—become instantly more accessible to the public. Suddenly we can empathize with them. Their products become more likeable, because as customers these tweets tell us that there are likeable people behind the brand.”
And as Jeanne Bliss argues in her classic book on customer service I Love You More Than My Dog, sometimes the tweets that seem most human are those banal pronouncements that are simply conversational and have little to do with anything other than normal life. Using Zappos as an example, she cites a tweet from CEO Tony Hsieh, “Getting a haircut.” Bliss argues that this kind of interaction, by its very ordinariness, emphasizes “the commonality of how we go through our days” and therefore tends to pull people together. “Following Tony on Twitter creates an unexpected bond. People feel like they know him, so of course they want to buy things from his site.”
In short, even though a social media interaction won't let you see the whites of your customers’ eyes, it nevertheless allows you to engage customers in conversational interactions that wouldn’t otherwise be possible or practical.
A company can even use simpler technologies, such as SMS texting, to engage customers in conversations at scale. Every month the Indian truck and auto manufacturer Tata Motors, for instance, exchanges more than 4 million text messages with customers and dealers, talking about product complaints, service reminders, new models, and other things. According to an analysis in MIT’s Sloan Management Review, “Not only do these connections reinforce the company’s brand, they help ‘personalize’ the customer’s connection with the company.”
Unfortunately, as companies grow, personal intimacy and the human factor often fall by the wayside. The nature of today’s economy and workforce has tended to make companies seem more remote, both physically and emotionally. This makes it all the more important for a business to try to recover whatever social connection it can, with the customers whose interests they should be trying to promote.
The same technologies that now empower customers by putting reviews and product information at their fingertips also empower customers to reach out to them, authentically. And there's no surer way to strengthen a company’s business than by showing genuine, authentic empathy for its customers.
You shouldn't need a reason to have a conversation with a customer.