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Why there's a CX empathy gap and how to close it


Throughout the pandemic, customers experienced empathy from brands that were living the crisis with them. But most businesses still fail to demonstrate the empathy customers seek. Here are three ways organisations can close this empathy gap.

30th Mar 2022
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We humans are not limited by rational thinking. We can be unpredictable. The decisions we take are weighted by our emotions. We use emotional intelligence (EI) to understand, use and manage these emotions in positive ways. Empathy, the ability to understand and relate to the thoughts and feelings of another person, is the part of the source code of our EI. It’s only natural that empathy is also a critical part of the source code of customer experience. Despite all the technology, it’s humans that will ultimately make or break your CX.

Customers want companies to understand where they are coming from, how they feel and what they need. They want businesses to connect with them in a personalised and relevant way. Expectations on experience in the past two years have taken on a whole different meaning. But not just in the way experiences have been digitised.

Throughout the pandemic, customers experienced empathy from brands that were living the crisis with them. But this is not a universal experience. Most businesses still fail to demonstrate the empathy customers seek. While 68% of customers expect brands to demonstrate empathy, according to Salesforce, just 37% say they experience it.

Closing this CX empathy gap is one of the biggest challenges facing businesses this year. With all of this in mind, let’s explore three ways companies can inject empathy into their customer experience.

Closing the empathy gap

1. Mapping empathetic experiences

Machines can analyse data sets on a scale beyond the capabilities of the human mind. But not all businesses have a strategy to do anything purposeful with it. It is often stuck in silos, fragmented and low value. This makes it difficult to map key customer journeys to visualise experiences, unearth the human story and turn that insight into empathy. From our experience, the best approach to fix this is to prioritise high value, critical touchpoints to map empathetic experiences at the right moment.

How to map an experience curve

One of the deliverables we create for clients are experience curves built around key customer journeys. Across the horizontal axis are the touchpoints. On the vertical axis is the emotional state of the customer (rather than some meaningless customer satisfaction number). The following example shows how Virgin Atlantic improved its business class customer journey by mapping the points where the pain and emotional vulnerability was greatest for busy, time poor executives.

The black line shows the pleasure / pain scale for customers. You’ll note the pain is greatest before getting on the flight – with concerns about whether I have allowed enough time to get to the airport and whether I have got my passport. It is also greatest after landing at the destination – in a place I might not be familiar with.

And yet, at the time, most airlines focused on the in-flight experience to improve their competitive position. While Virgin could not afford to be uncompetitive with its in-flight offering, they realised that there were diminishing returns from overinvesting in the part of the journey when customers are at their most relaxed; having made their flight and with the knowledge that the office cannot contact them for the next six hours.

Virgin Atlantic

Virgin realised the opportunity for competing by investing at either end of the journey – the red line. The troughs highlighted the best opportunities to improve its CX. The full range of product / service innovations that the airline introduced (at either end of the customer journey to differentiate) are highlighted in red below. 

Virgin Atlantic

Finding empathetic moments in your customer journey 

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Customer value – who are our most profitable customers and what are the key touchpoints (moments of truth) in their journey? 

  • Motivations and aspirations – what are customer goals and frustrations? What is their purpose? What do they expect and value? 

  • Behaviour and preferences – why do customers say, and do, the things they do? 

  • Pleasure and pain – where are our customers’ pain points and moments of emotional vulnerability? How can we fix things in the moment, and anticipate future problems? 

  • Emotional triggers – what are the emotional triggers that drive specific behaviours, actions and responses? 

  • Loyalty drivers – what are the loyalty drivers in our market? What are our customers’ priorities? 

  • Gains – how do we solve customer problems and what do they need to be successful? 

Customer service leaders invest in proactive customer experiences. They interrogate their data and make sure they see the world through a customer lens. They work out how to serve by anticipating their needs instead of just reacting. Research by Gartner discovered that businesses that adopted an empathetic model and invested in proactive customer service programmes increased net promoter scores, customer satisfaction scores, customer effort scores and value enhancement scores by a full percentage point.

Don’t just map journeys as they are – map journeys as they could be. This requires imagination and innovation. Vision and insight are key – even if customers may not be able to articulate their future needs. O2 in the UK is a good example here. The company realised there were limitations to competing on price plans and handsets. O2 instead focused on rewarding loyalty.

2. Building an empathetic internal culture

Empathetic CX is rooted in an empathetic internal culture and investment in employee engagement. Staff who understand (and believe) in the CX mission, the reasons why they do the things they do and the positive contribution they make, will be outwardly empathetic. Just over half of respondents (54%) in a survey by Freshworks and Harvard Business Review said that better employee engagement results in happier customers. Let’s focus on the front line here.

The reality is most service agents are not just unhappy with their job. They want to leave the industry altogether. Forbes reports that 69% of agents are in this bracket. The Great Resignation means that workers are on the move in worrying numbers. There is a big problem with disengagement, burn out and isolation. This needs fixing urgently. If your business is wrangling with how to improve your employee engagement, here are 10 purposeful ideas to get you started.

3. Through empathetic customer service

Customer service agents need to be able to understand, and identify with, what customers go through. Positive, empathetic interactions go a long way in building long-term, meaningful relationships. Showing empathy can make the customer feel cared for, even if resolution is not possible.

By the time a customer reaches out to a real person, they have probably tried everything else themselves. Regardless of channel, customers want agents to have their information at their fingertips to resolve their issue. They don’t want to repeat the same story over and over.

The front line is a highly pressurised place. Practising empathy doesn’t always come easy with someone you’ve probably have not spoken with before. It requires training for team members to develop these skills, supported by a permission structure and a culture in which going the extra mile for customers is expected.

Artificial empathy and automation won’t cut it

Developers have been working hard to build artificial empathy. But it just sounds scripted and doesn’t really wash. Bots are capable of producing the appearance of empathy. However, if you ever experienced an ’empathetic’ response from Alexa, for example, you’ll know what I mean.

Automated journeys can be frustrating. Customers find that digital solutions often don’t work for their specific problem or circumstances. Assistance from a real human being is now rare.

Two years after being on our screens, some people are starting to suffer from video fatigue. For instance, they might now prefer to go into a store to talk to someone instead of another Zoom consultation.

In the headlong rush to digitise customer journeys, some businesses are still failing their customers who don’t want to live online. Customers can quickly get fed up with speaking with bots and automated voices. Real empathy comes from real people. Machines will never, arguably, be capable of being empathetic in the human sense of the word. That’s down to us.


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Replies (2)

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Steven Walden
By Steven Walden
30th Mar 2022 15:50

To be honest, I think the problem lies with IT controlling CX budgets. A colleague of mine once explained that people took jobs in IT to get away from people. So don't be surprised with a mindset that focuses on scale without empathy; root-cause thinking without consideration.
Rip budgets for CX away from IT and you might have more success. IMHO.

Thanks (1)
By consentplanks
28th Apr 2022 02:35

However, it comes across as scripted and does not hold up under scrutiny. Bots are capable of creating the appearance of empathy in the minds of humans. However, if you've ever received a 'empathetic' response from Alexa, for example, you'll understand what I'm talking about.

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