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Buzzwords come and go in the customer experience world, but while we lose our patience with most, there are some that rightfully stick around. In 2013, Forrester Research landed on one such phrase – the ‘age of the customer’. Customers have more power than ever to get their voice heard and listened to. Brands are forever fearing that one viral tweet could severely damage or even destroy their carefully constructed brand image in a fleeting yet far-reaching flurry of complaints.
While we still very much live and work in the ‘age of the customer’, a new emotion has emerged and grown from within it – empathy.
“And the award for “Word of the Year” goes to… empathy!”, Shep Hyken, customer service and experience expert and Chief Amazement Officer at Shepard Presentations explains. “If there was ever a need for a display of empathy toward your customers, it has been – and will continue to be – during the pandemic. The companies and brands that show their customers empathy and prove that they care for and understand them are on their way to building stronger and trusting relationships. Empathy creates a personalized and emotional connection. It’s empathy that will get customers to come back.”
Empathy is typically defined as ‘feeling with’ someone. In customer service, this means putting yourself in the customer’s place to ‘feel their feelings’. The thinking behind this is that if customer service reps can feel empathy, they will better understand and appreciate the customer’s issue, and so be better positioned and willing to resolve their problem. The value and need of this emotion has become all the more pertinent since the emergence of Covid-19 in 2020, but as John Di Julius, Chief Revolution Officer, explains, the development of technology has had its impact too.
“Technology has made it easier for us to navigate through our busy lives, but it also erodes the fundamental element of human connections”, John Di Julius, Chief Revolution Officer at The DiJuluis Group, explains. “When communicating digitally, often it can lack a human touch, which creates a sterile transaction and lack of emotional connection. Today, being forced into a virtual world is adding to these unintended consequences, which we call a relationship deficit. As we’ve been forced to practice social distancing, people have realized how much they crave human connection… That is why the businesses that create emotional connections will dominate.”
Few people have escaped the effects of Covid-19 (or technology) on society. This has made the appetite for empathy almost universal, so showing empathy to a select few customers when you’ve got the time won’t cut it. Consumers everywhere are facing challenges every day, and they expect their brands to understand and empathize with this. As Adrian Swinscoe, best-selling author and experience advisor, explains, empathy must be more than a consideration. It must be built into a company’s values and foundations:
“Some organizations and brands have empathy baked into their culture and it pervades everything they do”, explains Swinscoe. “Others have been found wanting. However, the requirement to be more empathetic is not going away anytime soon and it’s going to become a key feature of standout experiences going forward. That does not necessarily mean more and longer conversations. In fact, it could mean the opposite. To better understand what this means, brands will need to think about this issue holistically and consider what an empathetic musculature means for their whole organization.”
In some ways, brands have brought this high standard upon themselves. Since as far back as Michelin Man, we have seen more and more companies anthropomorphizing their brand. M&Ms, Duracell Bunnies, and the MailChimp monkey are among some of the best-known examples.
As a result of this brand strategy, many consumers now unconsciously treat, and judge, companies on the same level as they would an individual. While studies have widely shown the positive impact this marketer-generated brand anthropomorphism can have by humanizing the company, it too can have its negative repercussions. If the brand is viewed as ‘human’, it will be held up to the same high standards that a fellow person would be – including expectations of empathy.
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On top of this, consumers can also anthropomorphize brands. Coined as ‘reverse brand anthropomorphism’, studies have shown that when consumers anthropomorphize a company, the outcome is usually negative. One such study by S. Umit Kucuk in the Journal of Consumer Marketing found that consumers tend to demonize brands and even begin viewing “corporations as consciously evil”. It is in situations like this that empathy becomes all the more critical and can be the tool to repair such relationships.
“Empathy comes easily to us among our friends and acquaintances”, Colin Taylor, CEO & CCO of The Taylor Reach Group, explains. “For most customer service and support teams, they face a unique hurdle in building a connection with an often cynical and distrusting customer. They must overcome the common customer perception that the company or organization does not have the customer’s best interests at heart, regardless of what the company mission statement says. Empathy lubricates situations where conflict and friction exist. Empathy genuinely delivered conveys to the customer the promise that we understand and will help them. This in turn transforms customer perception of the organization, and if we can repeat this on each and every customer interaction we can truly excel in the age of the customer.”
Aside from brand damage, a lack of empathy on an individual level can also directly damage the bottom line. Consumers have the power – they can jump from one brand to another as easily and quickly as many of us ‘commute’ to our home offices today. Without empathy, forget acquisition, and definitely forget loyalty and customer referral.
So, what can customer service and support teams do to show empathy online, and how can this emotion appear sincere, particularly across a digital medium? The first place to start is admitting your mistakes. Every company has to face problems that will affect their customers, whatever their size. We’ve seen this hit a peak during the 2020 Christmas period as companies struggled to even get their orders shipped. Predictably, customer service volumes shot up across the board as customers worried their Christmas presents wouldn’t arrive in time. Those who survived this ‘onslaught’ best were those teams that admitted the problem (even if it wasn’t the fault of the company), were open and showed sincere empathy with the customer – after all, no one wants their Christmas present to arrive late.
However, as Nate Brown, Chief Experience Officer at Officium Labs, explains, achieving sincere empathy is no easy feat:
“Ultimately, we all want to develop relationships with companies in the same way we do with other people. Empathy, our ability to understand the feelings of someone else and to even share in those feelings, is at its core. True empathy is extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, when we do not actually share the thoughts and feelings of the other party. This means that a great deal of intimacy is required between a brand and its customers. We must discover what makes them tick on a heart level… far beyond the traditional surface level “persona diagram.” Very few organizations will have the aptitude or ability to achieve such a feat. Oh but those that do…they will achieve loyalty at a level others can only dream of.”
While we all expect (and hope) that the effects of Covid-19 will soon begin to fade, the ‘age of empathy’ in customer experience won’t. The pandemic may well have highlighted the importance of empathy but it was not the cause, and so it’s departure won’t trigger its demise. Empathy is at the core of human relationships so while brands are held up to an anthropomorphic standard by today’s powerful consumer, empathy will be expected. And those who can genuinely deliver it will come out on top.