Part three of a new series from Smith+Co exploring business value, communication and empathy. Part one: Lessons on brand values from sinners and saints. Part two: How to adopt a value-led approach to handling a brand crisis.
"Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it's accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another's eyes or heart." - Sue Monk Kidd
My job was to create a brand tone for the social media channels and help a team of agents familiarise themselves with the sort of language and responses that fitted the tone. It was the easiest training sessions I've ever had to deliver. A cosmic stroke of luck saw to it that each of the ten agents had tons of empathy and a superb sense of humour.
Humour and empathy are two powerhouses when it comes to connecting with customers. And I'm not talking about the “Good morning Alex, are you having a good day?” platitudes, drilled into the poor agents and used for cold-calling operations. I'm talking about the sort of customer experience that turns a customer into a volunteer press officer - a walking, talking brand advertisement that won't have a bad word said against you.
We see it internally, all the time. Some team members are like magnets, they're just great to share the office with. People will complement their personality, their positivity and their 'way' with others. I would argue that it all comes down to empathy. When someone possesses the ability to see the film of life play out through someone else's lens, they're in possession of an irresistible gift. I've worked for individuals like this, and as team leaders, they've been worth their weight in gold.
Henry Ford went one further. He argued that "If there is any one secret of success, it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from that person’s angle as well as from your own."
Some business leaders may look to brush this off as HR ‘fluff’ or philosophical naivety; a Disneyesque version of corporate life. However, this would be to the detriment of customer advocacy, employee satisfaction and, ultimately, revenue.
Some business leaders may look to brush this off as HR ‘fluff’. However, this would be to the detriment of customer advocacy, employee satisfaction and revenue.
Scott Keller and Colin Price's 'Beyond Performance' study of more than 600 companies showed that those brands with a high 'organisational health score' registered two times higher financial performance than others. Most brands are seeking to increase customer advocacy and empathy and advocacy are closely related. As the author Samantha Power reminds us: “All advocacy is, at its core, an exercise in empathy.”
Leaders who want to incorporate empathy in their customer experience should always be prepared to create experiences that tap into the real emotions of customers. This year saw Delta Airlines take this very step when they treated their delayed passengers to a pizza party. Instead of the robotic apologies we are so often used to (see previous article in this series) they treated their customers as humans and created a memorable moment.
2017 also saw the cosmetic brand LUSH demonstrate their understanding of their customers' desire for genuinely natural products. To highlight how the brand uses natural and ethical ingredients, LUSH created a film that takes customers deep inside the factories to see every part of the process for themselves.
Empathy isn't just limited to making customers feel special, but can also highlight a path out of controversy. Airbnb, a brand aiming to 'increase cross-cultural empathy and decrease cultural boundaries' saw a customer who had been declined accommodation, subsequently accepted after using a fake profile picture of a white man. The brand responded and launched its ‘Open Doors’ policy, where any guest who feels victimised by discrimination is re-homed elsewhere or in a hotel.
Great. So, what now?
Can it be captured? Can empathy be fine-tuned to shape the customer experience? Absolutely. Here are three pointers:
1. Get to know the customer
In their book, ‘See, Feel, Think: Do The Power of Instinct in Business’, Shaun Smith and Andy Milligan quote the Native American saying “Do not judge your neighbour until you walk two moons in his moccasins”. Yes, as a society we seem to be forgetting this basic human curiosity. You only have to turn on the news to see that many people are facing challenges in many different ways throughout society today. Empathy starts with knowing your customer and being willing to listen to their views even if they don’t accord with your version of reality.
Brands shouldn't be adding to people's stresses and confusions but rather looking to deliver a seamless experience that starts and finishes at a place of empathy. If an agent manages to make a connection with a customer to the detriment of the call time targets, so be it. Take the hit.
Think long-term. Zappos measures ‘Average call Handling Time’ as do most contact centres, however where it differs is that it rewards agents for customer advocacy rather than productivity. Tony Hsieh, Zappos’ CEO, relates with pride that their longest customer call ever was five hours. Positive experiences often lead to positive conversations. And if your customer goes on to speak well of your brand after they've chatted with an agent, you've recruited another PR manager - at zero cost.
2. Know the cost
The difference between empathy and apathy will often mean the difference between a loyal customer and a lost customer. I have stayed with brands purely because of the customer service, as have millions of other customers. I have also switched providers because of a huge lack of customer empathy and care. My wife and I return to restaurants who go the extra mile, and we often choose smaller businesses who prioritise the customer experience and not just the selling of their products.
The cost of adopting an apathetic approach to customer relations is a real one that plays out in markets across the world every day. A lot of organisations, (insurance companies especially) rely on apathetic customers who renew policies without checking the alternatives and get ripped off as a result.
But inertia only gets you so far, and as soon as a better alternative comes along, customers will switch to reward the better brand. Whilst the UK High Street banks are beating their breasts about declining customers and waning footfall in branches, Metro Bank is busily growing market share and adding new stores.
3. Champion the champions
Organisations would benefit hugely from championing their agents who have a clear love and empathy for those around them. By championing this trait, entire brand cultures can be transformed. Let them lead the team. Promote them. Give them bonuses and random days off. When you reward empathy, it grows.
Recognising the incredible power of empathy to set a business culture is a game changer. But whatever you think of empathy, do not take it for granted. An empathetic person is a powerful asset embodying the very DNA of the brand, yet by their nature, they are probably the most sensitive to a toxic culture. Empathy starts at the top.
About Alex Willmott
B2B and B2C Communications Consultant specialising in communications strategy, social media alignment, PR and internal communications. Massive fan of disruptor communications and story-led marketing.