Customer empathy in business matters but yet it doesn’t always happen. Author Rob Volpe, who calls himself an empathy activist, even says there’s an empathy gap.
Why that is happening and how you can overcome it, is what I discuss in this article.
Specifically, I dive into:
- What is empathy?
- Why empathy with customers should be easy
- Why do businesses struggle with empathy
- The empathy gap
- How to be more empathetic with customers
- Creating surveys with consumers in mind
- How to hear and see consumers to understand them better
- Where to be empathetic
- The role of automation
- And more…
What is empathy?
In the simplest terms, customer empathy means that employees can truly understand what customers are going through. That could be because they’ve gone through the same or a similar situation before themselves. Or because they can see their perception and experience.
It’s not “ah, that’s not my problem” but more of “I hear you. Let me help.”
Customer empathy often has a negative connotation to it. We need to be empathetic to these customers that we are sending through this horrible phone tree.
But customer empathy can also be positive. In a nutshell, it’s about the ability to share their feelings. Realistically, it often comes back to the areas that companies can and should improve on. When somebody is happy with an experience, you can certainly feel happy for them and it feels good. But when it’s a negative experience is when we need to jump in and figure out how to fix it.
Rob, the author of “Tell me more about that”, breaks empathy down into two types.
“It’s feeling the feelings of somebody else,” he explained.
Rob explains that this is the empathy we use with the people in our tribe so to speak. People who live with us, people we interact with and that we are similar to.
“There’s so much that you have in common,” he said.
“That’s when you see the perspective of somebody else,” Rob explained on “Reel Talk: The Customer Insights Show.”
To show cognitive empathy, you have to figure out the other person. They are different from you, have different preferences and different needs.
Rand Fishkin, CEO of SparkToro said on “Reel Talk” that we “do have to recognize and have empathy for the fact that different people are different.”
And that’s often the case for the customer relationship because of who works at a company and who buys the products that company sells.
“When you are working with your consumer, your consumer is often not you,” said Rob. “Therefore you have to use cognitive empathy to understand them.”
Why customer empathy should be easy
All of us one way or another wear the hat of customers at some point. We talk with companies that offer the products we want. At times, we have to call when there’s a problem. Other times, we are so happy with our customer experience.
With that in mind, we should be able to relate to customer experiences, but sometimes we don’t when we are at work and when we are on the other side of the relationship.
“Sometimes we leave our own consumer experience behind,” said Priscilla McKinney, CEO at Little Bird Marketing. “Maybe we even leave a bit of our humanity behind. I sit at my desk and put my marketer hat on. ‘OK, the client needs this revenue and this message out so I’m doing this offer or this campaign.'”
But, she continues, the marketer can’t lose the connection to the consumer. And their own experiences on how people should be treated. That’s where customer empathy comes in. We can connect better with our customers when we truly feel what they need and how we can help.
Why do people struggle with empathy?
Rob explained that we are all born with empathy, but that it’s like a muscle.
“It has to be trained,” he said. “And if you don’t train to make the muscle strong, what happens? The muscle is flabby. It’s flat.”
Rob said that part of the reason people are lacking empathy is that they haven’t practiced it. For example, children are scheduled so much with activities and have been since perhaps the 1990s that they aren’t doing the activities that build that muscle.
“It was taken away that downtime that kids had to just be bored,” Rob said. “When you are bored you naturally do more activities that are like role play. Whether you are playing with dolls or action figures or going into the backyard and playing cops and robbers.”
Those are empathy-building opportunities because kids are playing like they are actually in those characters’ shoes.
“When you take away opportunities for people, for kids to do that, their muscles aren’t going to be as strong,” he said, adding that technology is also distracting from empathy-building tasks. Empathy specifically started declining in 2001, according to studies, he said.
Then we have social media, which is about self-validation and is often about making yourself appear in the best light.
“Social media is very much me directed as in making me feel good and not about showing empathy to others,” Rob said.
Sometimes it’s about how we connect with consumers. Are we reading their open-ended responses, are we seeing a summary chart of what the group of consumers thinks as a whole? Consider different research methods to reach different goals.
“There’s a real human being on the other side of that research,” said Jenn. “There’s not a ton of empathy in charts and graphs.”
The impact of the empathy crisis
Without empathy, it’s harder to collaborate, be a good team member and even ideate well. All these areas can have an impact on customer experience. Lacking empathy also makes it harder to listen to customers, which then makes it harder to understand problems and improve.
“Good luck trying to create an advertising campaign if you don’t understand the person you are trying to advertise to,” Rob said.
How to be more empathetic with consumers
Stop just checking tasks off the list is one thing. Let’s stick with the marketer example. Getting their marketing done isn’t the same as being empathetic, making sure the customer experience is great nor is it good storytelling, said Priscilla.
Added Jenn Vogel, vice president of marketing at Voxpopme and host of “Reel Talk.” It’s human nature to change hats going from personal tasks to business tasks.
“But really one does benefit the other,” said Jenn. “Being able to tap into what’s important to us as consumers can help us in our work, too.”.
Making customer empathy an official program can also help. For example, Reckitt has an “Outside In” program that brings customer voices inside the company through video surveys.
“It’s that sense of what are people thinking and feeling?” Elisabeth said about the program.
Keep in mind that you aren’t necessarily the people that you serve, she said.
“The more we can give exposure to other ways of life, it can help us connect with a broader group of consumers,” Elisabeth said.
“I love everything about this program,” added Jenn in her chat with Elisabeth on Reel Talk. “Research tends to be very ad-hoc and this is something that is ongoing and trying to understand what’s important to consumers.”
One reason, the program works for Reckitt, Elisabeth explained, is that it’s “light touch and easy.”
Research that gets close to customers used to be harder and more time-consuming, she said. But now, video surveys can be launched in moments and a survey can be done in hours with a geographically diverse audience.
“At the crux of it, insights is about empathy,” said Jay Lister, head of insights at Reebok. “Seeking out the diversity of thinking and culture is the way to do that. You need to be choosing to be curious.”
Creating surveys with the customer in mind
Showing empathy also means that we create our questions, pick our wording, and more with our customers in mind. Don’t send them a long survey that is hard to understand, for example.
“We are invested in the process,” said Annie Pettit, chief research officer at E2E Research on an episode of “Reel Talk.” “And we forget that on the other side we are talking to somebody who just got home from work, trying to cook dinner, there’s a five-year-old tugging on their pants. They got whatever to do. This is the life of real people. They are not doing questionnaires because it’s part of the job.”
How we think of respondents also can make a difference. Don’t think of them as “samples,” said Annie. Think of them as people. Shep Hyken, a customer experience thought leader, told us to even consider thinking of customers as neighbors. The wording matters.
Hearing and seeing your customers
It also can be easier to have empathy for people when we see and hear them. Email comes to my mind and how distant it can feel when I get one. I can’t see their emotions or their body language. Hoping on a video call or even watching somebody’s video survey response can help us understand where they are coming from.
And in qual, it’s is all about empathy, said Rob. It’s about listening, hearing, and understanding your customer. Empathy is essential.
To get started with empathy, you have to dismantle your judgment, said Rob.
Dismantling your judgment allows you to listen deeper and not judge what the person is doing and saying, which may be different from what you would be doing or saying.
To get insights out of what consumers are saying we have to truly listen to what they are saying.
Be empathetic to your ideal buyers
“We need to empathize with the people that we serve,” said Jenn.
“And understanding them on a deeper level than just the superficial,” added Rob.
People should just be nice and helpful, in general. I’ve talked to a company before and I wasn’t their ideal buyer. And they weren’t my ideal vendor. The salesperson was kind of rude letting me know about that fact. No need for that really.
But understanding your ideal customer profile can be helpful. Their opinions and their problems should be more relevant than the opinion of somebody who will never work with you or buy your product anyway.
“When you market to everybody you market to nobody,” said Priscilla. “That’s why you need to say on platforms like Voxpopme’s ‘I need to talk to a specific group. That group is going to get me the insights I need.”
Really listen to the stories and understand how consumers are using your product and why.
“Sometimes people will say during the research ‘well, they aren’t using the product right,'” Priscilla said. “Um, no. The user is using the product exactly the way the user needs to be using the product.”
“If they are buying it, who cares?” Priscilla said. They are finding the best use for themselves! With that, keep in mind that the ideal customer profile can evolve.
“There could be a whole new niche of customers but your own assumption might be keeping you from seeing them.
Where to be empathetic
Really, customer empathy should be part of all customer touchpoints and also throughout the product lifecycle. Empathy is a step in the design thinking process, which I explain in this article.
That also includes immersing ourselves in the consumer environment, said Andy in an episode of “Reel Talk.”
“And then it’s how do we socialize that internally,” he added.
Importance of the right team
Customer empathy can be a hiring issue as well. Make sure the makeup of the team represents the customer base and has shared experiences to make customer empathy easier.
“Have a team as best as you can that represents the worldviews of the customers that you are serving,” said Jenn.
“You certainly do have a very diverse set of buyers and customers,” said Jenn. “Have a team internally that reflects that and vendors that reflect that, it’s going to build that empathy with all of the types of customers that you might have.”
Share the customer stories with empathy
Surely, many company roles can and should listen to customers with empathy. Researchers as well. Once the insights have been gathered and analyzed, it’s also essential to share them with leadership and other stakeholders.
“Researchers shirk sometimes at the table and kind of present their thing without coming out bold,” Priscilla said. “The reality is that they are the people closest to the consumers. They should be that champion of the voice of the consumer.”
The role of automation
Automation also plays a role in acing customer empathy. For example, Priscilla recalled getting a fantastic email from a company that was clearly written by somebody who had the time, expertise, and energy to produce the response.
“They are clearly in digital transformation,” she said. “All these other things are automated and that’s why they have the time to write this interesting email to me with all these options of what I could do since they were out of the product. It made me so loyal.”
Of course, to write personalized customer communications, we have to understand the person and their situation.
To truly understand and work for our customers, we do need to have customer empathy. And that involves a mix of emotional and cognitive empathy. Be human. It will make it easier to help other humans.