Can we achieve empathy in a digital environment?by
The idea of digital empathy as ‘the next best thing’ in making products or services stand out from their competitors and in improving customer experience is deeply alluring. But is it possible?
A smart way to go about business model design, and therefore product and service design, is to view it through the eyes of the customers. Because who else are better equipped to talk about customer needs than the customers themselves? In turn, this promises to lead to insights which could help the company gain an enhanced competitive advantage.
Now, the ability to know how the customers feel and think and why (cognitive empathy), feel what the customers are feeling (affective empathy), and understand their situation and feelings to the point of being moved to help (compassionate empathy), is an art by no means easy.
Can we achieve empathy in a digital environment?
Understanding and caring for the feelings of others has always been fundamental to communication and social interaction. In face-to-face interaction, there is widespread prevalence of empathy. But the traditional view is that experiencing empathy through computer-mediated communications can turn out to be more challenging than face-to-face communication.
This is generally said to be so mainly because of reduced interpersonal cues, such as body language, prosodic speech qualities, and so on, which decrease the information transmitted, obstructing affiliative interactions. As it is well known, a person’s tone of voice can change the recipient’s interpretation of a statement entirely, just like confident gestures can help convey assertiveness and close a business deal.
So, what happens in a world gone digital, a world saturated with online apps and stores? Can we get to know and experience what our customers ‘feel like’? Are customers becoming more distant from each other and from businesses in the context of the ever-rising technology in the digital era? Perhaps. Or perhaps not.
But accepting this assertion at face value is to reduce the human nature to a fraction of what it really is. Humans as social beings are much more wonderfully complex and the only truth by which we can stand is that when it comes to people, there are no universal truths. Customers included.
We’ve lived far too long in a world dominated by idealised mental models about what customers should be or behave like and consequently judged the success of our products and services based on achieving certain financial and non-financial performance metrics, such as sales growth or perceived product quality.
This is not to say that these indicators are no longer important. Just that in today’s context they are insufficient in the quest of understanding and creating sustainable customer experience (CX) and business value. To grow is to challenge status quo. We need new measures of success and, as it turns out, digital empathy is one of the missing links.
“There is one thing stronger than all the armies in the world, and that is an idea whose time has come.” (Victor Hugo)
There is plenty of evidence to support that digital empathy is not only possible but that it attends to conditions that are specific to computer-mediated communication. For example, research shows that, while it may take longer, individuals develop empathic relationships which in some cases could be even more intimate than face-to-face interactions. One reason for this lies in that for some individuals, increased anonymity and distance works to reduce inhibitions, facilitating more personal disclosures and leading to the achievement of greater empathic connections.
Furthermore, individuals compensate for the lack of nonverbal cues by relying on alternate ways to communicate emotion, such as the use of emojis. Some may feel confused by some emojis, but most of us understand and agree that smiling face emojis express joy, while unhappy face emojis express sadness and red faced emojis express anger. Research has also shown that emoticons can be used to express humour, as well as to strengthen the intended message.
Digital empathy is ‘the next best thing’ to revolutionise CX
The above arguments work to show that learning to recognise, understand, feel, and communicate emotions in the digital space is already an essential skill for any business, and even more important given the massive role played by the Internet in the age of coronavirus.
A customer who feels understood and supported is more likely to become a loyal customer. This is because intuitively, customers will tend to gravitate towards products and services that are designed to be sensitive and understanding towards their personal needs and circumstances.
And businesses need to rediscover and ethically capitalise on the power of human touch in a world that has gone digital. Ultimately, digital empathy is about empowering businesses to embrace a new dimension of their potential and step into the greatness to deliver exceptional experiences for their customers.
The idea of digital empathy as ‘the next best thing’ in making products or services stand out from their competitors and in improving customer experience through meaningful, ethical, and authentic interaction is deeply alluring. What has been achieved in this field so far is just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine the possibilities!
Charles has a PhD in Operations Research. He is a leading AI and Data Science voice and a Behavioural Predictive Analytics enthusiast. He has published more than 150 research outputs with strong scientific rigour. Skilled in the art of monetising data, with a strong sense of data ethics, and a demonstrated ability to leverage data assets for...