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Marketers, It’s Time to Amplify Empathy

I’m a trained engineer who loves deep analysis, but I’ve learned a lesson that most marketers seem to have forgotten: left-brain activities aren’t enough. No matter how deeply you invest in data and analytics, your marketing efforts won’t be fully successful unless you add a key ingredient: empathy.

The lack of empathy is so significant that Temkin Group dubbed 2014 “The Year of Empathy” and launched Amplify Empathy—a movement that represents a hope, cause, and heartfelt desire that companies will work towards developing a deeper understanding of their customers’ needs and will use this knowledge to better serve them.

Before the advent of analytical, left-brain efforts, marketers relied heavily on their right brain to connect with customers on an emotional level. The new data-centric approaches have been extremely successful in targeting the right customers with the most relevant messages. But the next level of success won’t come from analytics alone. Marketers will need to infuse empathy into their analytical efforts.

The three elements of organizational empathy

Most people have an innate ability to be empathetic, but organizations tend to dampen this natural instinct. While typical customer interactions cut across many functional groups—a purchase, for instance, may require contact with product management, sales, marketing, accounts payable, and legal—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 perceived chasm between customer empathy and employee success.

After examining much of the academic, medical, and business research on the topic of empathy, we developed a simple model for enhancing empathy that we call Perceive-Reflect-Adjust:

  • Perceive: Understand how someone else feels.
  • Reflect: Examine how your actions affect those feelings.
  • Adjust: Make changes to improve how someone else feels.

How effectively do your marketing efforts consider customers’ perceptions, reflect how you’re affecting customers’ feelings, and adjust based on how they feel?

Advice: Guide with empathy

Temkin Group has defined a new concept called People-Centric Experience Design (PCxD), which focuses on fostering an environment that creates positive, memorable human encounters. One of the three elements of PCxD is to “Guide with Empathy.”

Here are five ways marketers can generate some sparks on the right side of their brains:

  • Refer to customers as people, not data. Your data may show that your average customer is female, has 1.7 children, owns 1.3 cars, and lives  in the suburbs, but that doesn’t describe any real person. To spark empathy, it’s important to talk about customers in ways that allows employees to relate to them. Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan created three “design personas” (Mike, Grace, and Lisa) that provide “faces” 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 understand how customers perceive the company.
  • Spread customers’ actual words. There’s something powerful about hearing what customers are thinking in their own voice. Brokerage service 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.
  • Assume that customers will be confused. After spending many hours per week talking about their company’s products, processes, and organization, 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. Because 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?”
  • Raise awareness of customer’s emotional state. You can raise empathy by encouraging employees to think about how they make customers feel. Every time customers interact with a company, they have a range of emotional reactions. We’ve identified five distinct emotions that we call the Five A’s: 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? This can be a valuable coaching tool.

The bottom line: Analytics plus empathy is a winning combination.

  Bruce Temkin, managing partner and customer experience transformist at Temkin Group, a customer experience research and consulting company. He is widely viewed as a leading expert in customer experience.
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