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How Developing Empathy Leads to Better Customer Experiences

Empathy is defined as the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. For example, we show empathy when we put ourselves in the shoes of an elderly person and give them our seat on a crowded bus. Or when we share genuine excitement with a friend who received a job promotion. Showing this type of empathy often comes naturally to us, and is ingrained in how we act in our everyday lives.

But what happens when we are sitting behind a computer screen looking at call centre costs racking up from repeat callers or negative customer survey results? Do we empathize with the experiences our customers are having?

Sometimes we forget to show our instinctive empathy to customers because we aren’t interacting with them on a daily basis. This may be the case for certain leaders, motivated to grow revenue or cut costs, who sadly lose touch with whom they are serving. When we find ourselves forgetting about the people we help, it’s time to take a pause and start using empathy more effectively.

Even well-meaning front line employees can struggle to show empathy to customers when they are pressured to focus on business processes or demands. Again, this is an opportunity to think about what really matters and re-prioritize.

Sometimes a lack of empathy is obvious and glaring, for example, when United Airlines personnel violently dragged a passenger out of a plane. The video of this horrific scene went viral globally because people couldn’t believe how a business could have processes that forced employees to lose all signs of empathy. We obviously should not wait for situations like this to take place in our companies. Rather we should seek out opportunities where more empathy can be shown to our customers.

So what’s the big deal?

We get it, being nice is nice. But is it practical to spend time gaining more empathy when we have businesses to run and money to make?

Yes. 55% of Customers would pay more for a better customer experience *

*“50 Important CX Stats to Know,” Defaqto Research, July 19, 2017

CX Professionals know that designing an exceptional and memorable customer experience is very important. Gone are the days where customers’ expectations are only for their functional needs to be met. A better experience goes hand-in-hand with positive business results.

Customers want to feel a connection with and a belonging to a brand. This is how the best brands shine. A recent IBM-Ipsos Study found that this sense of belonging can grow revenue up to 12% per year.

Brands can only develop these meaningful feelings with customers through showing their empathy. Think of a brand you do business with, although it may be cheaper to take your business elsewhere – more times than not, you spend the extra cash because of the way the brand makes you feel, whether that’s the employees you interact with or the overall experience.

As CX Professionals, let’s go beyond thinking about how we’ll connect with the rational side of customers and think about the purchases customers make due to loyalty and positive sentiment towards a brand.

Well, how do we gain more empathy for our customers?

"If I'd asked customers what they wanted, they would have told me, 'A faster horse!'" – Henry Ford

Empathy isn’t just about asking our customers what they want and then providing just that.

The number one way to gain empathy for our customers that will lead to better results for our business and the people we serve is to… Get out there and see for yourself! This advice isn’t new. However, the insights you’ll gain from getting out there will be. Here are three simple steps to boost empathy among your team.

1. Observe the actual customer journey

Gain empathy for your customers by seeing first-hand how your customers interact with your products or services. When they struggle or fail at a certain point in the customer journey, you’ll empathize with them and want to fix those pain points.

There’s a great story I love about a Sony focus group – it goes years back - during the time of the boombox. Facilitators of the focus group worked with participants to understand if a yellow boombox or a black boombox would be more attractive to customers. After much deliberation, the group unanimously decided that the yellow boombox was best. On their way out of the building, the focus group attendees were offered a free boombox to take home for themselves. Unanimously, each attendee took home a black boombox.

Moral of the story? Don’t just ask or lead customers in a certain direction. Observe what they do.

You may not have heard of Lillian Moller Gilbreth, but her work likely makes your life easier each and every day. In the 1920’s, Gilbreth, industrial psychologist and engineer was re-inventing the kitchen – but she wasn’t much of a cook. What she did do was observe how other women went about cooking meals in the kitchen. She closely watched the challenges they faced and the inefficiencies of the kitchen layout. The results of her research created a template for the kitchen that remains conceptually unchanged today.

Sometimes you don’t have to be the customer of your product, but empathize, observe and design for your actual customer.

As a CX Professional, it’s important to think beyond surveys, interviews and focus groups. Think about ways you can observe the actual customer journey, whether that is in store, in a customer’s home, or seeing how a customer uses your website.

2. Try the journey for yourself

There’s a reason why this quote is as famous as it is - "You can't understand someone until you've walked a mile in their shoes."

A.k.a Try it for yourself – that’s how you’ll be able to observe and FEEL the ups and downs in your customer journey. Temporarily take off all the hats you wear for just one – the customer hat. Call into your contact centre, see any of the pain points or opportunities for yourself.

Or on the flipside, try the front-line employee journey. You may see that some of the tools, processes, or metrics used don’t actually work in a way that best serves the customer.

As a CX Professional, think about how you can provide opportunities for everyone to try the customer and employee journey in an authentic manner. How can you track their learnings and input it into a roadmap of CX improvements?

3. Keep an open and active mind everywhere you go

If your product is a mobile app, you likely keep tabs on the new trends in mobile. You may download a bunch of other apps to see how they work – doing your research, great!

However, who’s to say you can only gain inspiration from your own industry or product scope?

Maintaining a sense of curiosity and open-mindedness allows you to gain inspiration from unexpected sources.

One of my favorite takeaways from a great book, Creative Confidence, by David and Tom Kelley, is to keep a traveler’s mindset. When we’re on vacation, our eyes are always peeled. Lost in another culture, we find the smallest things interesting. We’re curious about the differences in restaurants between our vacation country and our home country. We’re curious about the architecture of buildings and even the small things, like the mailboxes in front of houses. How often are we this curious – with a traveler’s mindset – in our regular lives?

As a CX Professional, keep an active mind as you go about your regular life. You’ll find yourself gaining empathy for the people around you. Even opening your eyes to small problems or making small changes makes a difference in the CX.

And if you’re still not convinced…

Compelling stories and change don’t come from numbers alone. Instead of letting our organizations become too reliant on data only, CX Professionals need to work collaboratively to provide hybrid insights that tell a story of the “what” from the data and the “why” from the humans. You’ll find out the “why” by learning from and empathizing with your customers.

Whether our organization serves customers, patients, students or employees, we are providing an experience for humans.

We can’t forget that customers are simply humans who hope for their needs and wants to be fulfilled by the humans who provide the services and products they use. The way we interact with our customers shouldn’t be too far off from how we would interact with the people outside of work – with empathy.


Mariam Ayyoob is a Senior Customer Experience & Strategy Consultant at IBM iX based out of Toronto. She volunteers as the National Operations Researcher & Volunteer Experience Lead for Lean In Canada. Topics Mariam loves sharing and learning about include: creating exceptional experiences (customer, product, employee, etc.), digital transformation, strategy, women in the workplace/leadership, and personal development. Mariam holds an Honours Bachelors of Business Administration from the Schulich School of Business, York University.

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