20 May Industrialising Empathy:
Building a Customer-Centric Culture
Each of our clients is working to deliver a distinct flavour of customer experience to differentiate themselves in the market. But to create lasting connections, every customer experience must also meet one universal need: on some level, all customers want to deal with someone who understands them and has their best interests at heart.
This idea is expressed differently in each organisation – trust, customer-centricity, caring or empathy – but at its core is a commitment to doing the right thing by the customer.
So how do you create a culture of genuine caring at an organisational level? How can ‘doing the right thing’ be industrialised? The idea of empathy is core to human-centred design; but the experience design process happens over a defined period of time, in special sessions, and is usually limited to a relatively small group of team members. To then execute, how do you permanently switch on empathy within a large, distributed group of employees, in a way that customers will feel in every day-to-day interaction?
Unlocking innate behaviour
I was explaining Kindness Cards to a six year-old recently and, of course, they made perfect sense to her. Research suggests that altruism, the disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others, is innate to our species. It seems to be ‘hard-wired’ into most humans [Psychology Today] and it’s a powerful motivation for all generations [Forbes]. In hundreds of employee interviews, we’ve found consistently that people want to do the right thing by their customers and are deeply frustrated if they feel they can’t.
So the six year-old and I spent a fun weekend trying to commit stealthy acts of kindness. At one point she asked me: why don’t people do this all the time? It’s a good question, one we also wrestle with in businesses, in our efforts to deliver customer experiences that make the customer feel cared for.
It certainly can be done: some brands, from Apple to Zappos, have earned a reputation (and a price premium) for seeming to truly care about customers. Over the past several years, our client AMP Capital Shopping Centres has successfully nurtured a defining culture of kindness among its shopping centre staff, that enables a better experience for customers [Watch].
So, asks the six-year-old: why doesn’t kindness happen everywhere? Or as our clients ask: how can we be more like Disney or Ritz-Carlton or Southwest?
It’s generally accepted that the larger and more anonymous the community, the less people seem to help each other. But it’s worth noting that there are many different cultural responses to living in a big city or working in a big company: while in some places people jostle and elbow each other out of the way, in others they develop systems of collaboration and mutual support. Even large teams can be united by a clear sense of purpose and even strangers can spark our innate altruism.
There’s plenty of research and writing on the subject but it seems to boil down to this:
We want to be kind… unless
it’s too hard,
it’s not valued,
or we feel poorly treated ourselves.
So, if we want kindness to be part of our culture and tangible in every aspect of our customer experience, we need to make being kind easier, more important and more fair.
Easy is a matter of empowering people. Making sure staff feel they have time to take care of customers, authority to act, and access to the right information and support. We can start by asking them if existing systems or processes are getting in their way. It’s also harder for people to tap into their natural kindness and creativity if their roles are too scripted. So it can be helpful to showcase some of the outliers within your team, the unusual personalities, so staff see that they’re allowed to bring their real selves to work. Sharing customer feedback also helps staff understand what to do. And teams can build confidence in virtual situations, like role-plays or scenario-based online training.
Making something important is mostly about celebrating it when we see it, whether it’s peer-to-peer recognition, customer feedback or CEO call outs. It helps if you can make clear how customer-centricity connects to, rather than competes with other organisational priorities, like your business plan and long-term vision. And this may be one of the few occasions where writing something on the wall could actually make a difference – although nothing communicates a priority like leaders visibly making time for it.
Fairness is a bit harder. The people who feel most responsible for ‘customer experience’ may not have much control over employees’ salaries or how their expenses get paid. But a culture of fairness begins by listening to staff, whether in person or using newer channels like enterprise social media, and coming back with some action. Greater transparency and alignment around a clear purpose can help leaders be more consistent in their own choices and actions. And one simple way to make employees feel valued and respected is to invest in them, with training that they feel adds to their own personal toolkit.
Return on investment
Writing about kindness and empathy feels strange, even naive, as if the six year-old should be illustrating this article with sparkly stickers of unicorns and fairies. But in reality, customer-centricity should be measurable, like any other aspect of culture. It should be evident in behaviours which can be observed and therefore tracked: how often does customer experience or customer service come up in key meetings? How recently has the team received and discussed new information about the customer? And these behaviours should deliver outcomes that in turn can be measured in customer satisfaction, repeat business and profit.
There’s mounting evidence that empathy creates a customer experience that delivers value to both customer and business. HBR published a report on The Most (and Least) Empathetic Companies late last year (27 November 2015). The report asserted that “The top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 and generated 50% more earnings. Average earnings among the top 10 were up 6% this year, while the average earnings of the bottom 10 dropped 9%.”
And it makes sense intuitively too: as a customer, if I feel someone understands me and will do the right thing by me, then I’ll want to deal with them again and I’ll be more open their suggestions.
There’s a lot of talk about empathy, service and customer-centricity within business today. The words all mean slightly different things but the core idea is that customers want to feel you’re on their side and this needs to be apparent at every point in the customer experience. For this to happen, let’s start by removing some of the barriers that prevent staff from tapping into their natural human instinct to take care of others.