How the world's best CX leaders are creating empathetic experiencesby
By taking a look at the work of the applicants from MyCustomer's CX Leader of the Year programme, we're able to identify how some of the world's most successful customer experience programmes are addressing customer empathy.
In July last year, MyCustomer and Genesys commissioned Savanta to conduct a study to examine empathy in customer interactions.
The research polled a survey group of over 200 senior customer service and customer experience professionals, revealing that the vast majority of organisations believe that empathy is an important component of their customer service engagements. When we asked respondents how important they believe it is that their organisations display empathy/compassion in their service interactions with customers, the overwhelming majority (89%) told us that it was “very important”.
And unsurprisingly, given the disruption and distress caused by the pandemic, our respondents almost unanimously (97%) told us that they believe that empathy is more important to their customers than it was 18 months ago.
So what are CX leaders doing to improve empathy and compassion in their customer experiences? By taking a look at the work of the applicants from MyCustomer's CX Leader of the Year programme, we're able to identify how some of the world's most successful customer experience programmes are addressing this crucial concern.
Amjad Khan, head of customer advocacy and intelligence at HSBC, for instance, emphasised the importance of empathy as a consideration during the recruitment process for those in customer-facing roles.
Noting that there is no "manual" for qualities such as intellect, energy and empathy, Amjad explained that as it is impossible to script the thousands of different variations of banking questions and scenarios that could arise, there is extra focus on hiring the right people with the right qualities in the first place - and then empowering them with the right information.
“The skillset for the people who have the privilege of handling our customers every day has to be aligned to our strategy. Some of the synergies with customer service leading organisations is intellect, empathy, energy and diversity, therefore I’ve built this into our process,” he explained.
Throwing out scripts to be more human
Stacy Sherman, head of customer experience, North America, at Schindler Elevator Corporation, also discussed ways in which her team - and the company at large - had worked to increase empathy in customer interactions, throwing out call centre scripts to increase the human touch.
“Rather than normal scripts, my customer experience survey reps changed to "Peace of Mind" calls to let customers know that we're open, and here for them during tough times,” she explained. “We knew that they'll remember these calls after the pandemic ends.”
She continued: “During the global pandemic, we quickly recognised the need for a more ‘human’ approach to stay in contact with customers during a period of unprecedented uncertainty, and gauge their thoughts and feelings in a more direct manner. So, our best in class CX feedback team pivoted to “peace of mind” phone calls. Instead of asking traditional survey questions that don’t apply, we contacted customers to express empathy and inform them that we’re here for them.
"We authentically asked customers how we can be of help, which natural drives loyalty outcomes. As Maya Angelou says, ‘people will forget what you did and said, but never forget how you made them feel’.” That is exactly why we do what we do. We’re more than an elevator/escalator company. We elevate empathy and people.”
Simplifying products and changing practices
Elsewhere, Anton de Wet, chief client officer at Nedbank in South Africa, led a cross-functional team to ensure that an empathy-led approach was taken to manage its operations during COVID-19.
“We acknowledged the heightened anxiety of clients who were experiencing reduced/loss of income and the health risk of contracting the virus. This meant aligning ourselves to continue operating with fewer staff, dealing with rolling branch closures, as these needed to be closed for deep cleansing when a positive case was experienced.
“We had to align all communication channels, media, social media, branch staff and contact centre readiness and amend our advertising campaign on the fly, as circumstances were changing rapidly. We aligned our lending practices and shaped our communication of payment holidays across various products to simplify this for anxious clients.”
These efforts would be acknowledged by the industry when Nedbank were awarded prizes by the Asian Banker publication for the most helpful Bank in Africa during COVID-19 and most Helpful Bank in South Africa during COVID-19.
Supporting vulnerable customers
But one particular story stood out during this year’s CX Leader of the Year programme.
Nicki Osborne, customer vulnerability lead, at M&G plc, has worked tirelessly over the past 12 months to ensure the support and wellbeing of vulnerable customers, and it was this work that would see her become the recipient of the CX Leader of the Year Compassion Award.
“As a customer experience professional, I look at ‘vulnerable customers’ as a segment of our base; albeit a large segment. Research suggests that at any time around 50% of adults could be vulnerable. Within any ‘normal’ CX team it is helpful to identify the key personas or customer types that will interact with your brand. I see vulnerability as an extension of this and believe that it is critical for any CX team in financial services to ensure they are effectively supporting these customers just as they would do for any other segment.”
In the process of moving beyond the tactical adaptations that had been made to handle the COVID-19 crisis, M&G began to examine its strategic change plans, and it was during the Autumn of 2020 that the executive team concluded that vulnerable customers could be better and more consistently supported across the entire organisation.
A vulnerable customer programme was set up and Nicki was given the opportunity to lead this, taking responsibility from December 2020. The scope of the programme would cover five different businesses, each with their own operating model, own stakeholders, different product portfolios and different customer demographics.
“I established an executive level management group and brought together colleagues from across the organisation into a working group to support and drive delivery,” explains Nicki. “The initial goal given to the project was relatively undefined – to align and improve the service for vulnerable customers – and I knew that in order to create momentum we had to be more specific about what that really meant and I wanted a clear vision for the project to anchor on. To establish a clear goal I undertook extensive research; scrutinising the regulatory guidance, reviewing international standards but also looking outside in; exploring what best in class examples could be used to inspire us and shape our direction.”
One of Nicki’s first achievements came as a direct result of her background as a CX professional. With helping colleagues to better understand customers one of the fundamental elements of a CX role, and in the process breaking down typecasts and misconceptions of customers, Nicki was able to quickly identify that stakeholders were simplifying the diverse set of vulnerable customers into a single category.
“It was ‘the’ singular vulnerable customer, whereas in reality there are so many scenarios that we need to consider,” explains Nicki. “By looking at vulnerability in a very high level fashion, the business was not fully appreciating the individual needs of customers and this was inhibiting our ability to deliver better experiences.”
Nicki understood that historically the business had focused on the causes of vulnerability, such as a divorce or a mental health crisis, but hadn’t sufficiently considered how these circumstances impact the customers and their experiences. To bring this to life, she introduced hypothetical examples into the board room - and also brought an example closer to home.
“In December 2020 I started experiencing tinnitus – a ringing in my ears. Tinnitus is classed as a driver of vulnerability as it is a hearing impairment but it’s severity on individuals ranges significantly. For me, thankfully whilst it is constant it has not 3 of 5 impacted my day to day living or how I interact with service providers. But for some people living with the condition it would, they may want to avoid telephony channels for example. By sharing this example, as a lived experience, the board were able to understand why it was critical to shift the dialogue away from labelling customers and move towards a focus on what we could control and change. Sadly, we can’t change if a customer is experiencing cancer, or if they have poor literacy skills, but we can ensure they get the service they need, in the way they need it.”
Nicki rebranded the programme from ‘vulnerable customers’ to ‘customer vulnerability’ - a small and nuanced change of language but a crucial one in enabling the right change to happen.
New training, policies and propositions
With the management group committed to the project, Nicki has worked hard to shape the delivery, specifically focusing on building strong foundations on which more complex initiatives could then be added.
To date the programme has hit a number of milestones including:
- Creating a comprehensive policy which defines how M&G plc will manage the sensitive data relating to their customers and their vulnerability. Changes to the company’s systems and processes are now being made in line with this policy.
- Designing and rolling out training to colleagues on how to support customers experiencing suicidal thoughts.
- Enhancing the company’s proposition process to give colleagues the tools & knowledge needed to embed vulnerability thinking into their ways of working.
- Overhauling the compulsory annual training to move away from a focus on the rules and regulations and towards the real stories of customers and a focus on “why”.
To deliver as much change as possible whilst also embedding accountability across the organisation, Nicki has also used the working group to deliver a range of tactical local change.
“These changes have ranged from additional bespoke training for specific areas of our business through to creating vulnerable customer champions within some of our service teams to ensure agents have timely support to complex cases, so that they’re able to deliver an effective and positive experience for our customers,” she explains.
Whilst Nicki and her team are only a year into a minimum two-year programme, they have already managed to drive change and deliver a number of key projects which will improve the experience for M&G’s most vulnerable clients and customers.
She concludes: “Whilst I have been responsible for shaping and directing the programme, it has been a true team effort. This enormous amount of change has only been possible thanks to the incredible collaborative efforts of the team around me. We’ve fostered a challenging environment where candour is encouraged and the voices of our customers and colleagues heard. I’m excited to see what that future holds and look forward to continuing to lead that charge.”
Neil Davey was previously the editor of MyCustomer from 2007 until May 2023. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management.
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Great article. Highlights the importance of the so called soft skills. These will only get more and more important, and future organisations will need CX people employed for their people skills, not their technical knowledge.