I recently introduced a concept for enlisting the support of employees that uncovers and fulfills the needs of customers that we call People-Centric Experience Design (PCxD), defined as:

Fostering an environment that creates positive, memorable human encounters.

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Principle #2: Guide with Empathy

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.” It turns out that most people have an innate ability to be empathetic. While people may want to help others, 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.

Here are some ideas for guiding with empathy:

  • Refer to customers as people, not data. Your data may show that your average customer is 57% female, has 1.7 children, owns 1.3 cars, and lives 62% in the suburbs, but that does not describe any real person. To spark empathy, it’s important to talk about customers in a way that employees can relate to them. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan created three “Design Personas” (Mike, Grace, and Lisa) that provide a “face” to key customer segments. Using a self-guided layout and navigation, employees were taken through these customer persona scenarios, exposed to their pain points, and informed of new and ongoing improvement initiatives.
  • 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. These artifacts can help employees across different roles and functions to understand how customers perceive the company. Genworth Financial reviews customer journey maps as part of its new employee onboarding process.
  • Discuss customer feedback…often. 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. Charles Schwab organizes verbatims by themes and topics and then puts them in the hands of the appropriate people across the company. The result: thousands of people read the verbatims including every branch and call center team. 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.
  • Assume that customers will be confused. After spending many hours per week talking about their company’s products, processes, and organization during work, employees are naturally prone to expect customers to have that same level of understanding. They don’t. This situation often leads to language and processes that customers find confusing. Since this is a natural bias, it can’t be eliminated. However, it can be neutralized if you get into the habit of asking the question: “Would our target customers fully understand this?” Cigna used this concept to drive its “Words We Use” campaign to eliminate confusing language in all of its customer communications.
  • Raise awareness of the customer’s emotional state. You can raise empathy by encouraging employees to think about how they make customers feel. 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 front line employees keep a checklist for identifying which of the five emotions customers have after an interaction. This can be a valuable coaching tool.
  • 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. 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.

The bottom line: Unleash your employees’ natural empathy.

This blog post was originally published by Temkin Group prior to its acquisition by Qualtrics in October 2018.