“Empathy in Action”​ offers a modern playbook for delivering customer experience (CX)

Original Article by Mila D’Antonio

My path to a CX career started in 2001 at Peppers & Rogers Group. I joined the company seven years after founders Don Peppers and Martha Rogers PhD envisioned, evangelized, and popularized the concept of one-to-one relationships. Their first book The One-to-One-Future (1993) described the approach of businesses nurturing relationships with each customer by collaborating with them and differentiating them.

They theorized that maximizing share of customer and then return on customer (increasing loyalty and revenue) depended on the efforts to elevate the customers’ trust. The more a customer trusts a company to act in their best interests, the more value each customer will receive in current and future relationships. The strategy presented a clear window into a post-mass-marketing future and gave companies a playbook to create their own “share of customer.”

This nearly 30-year-old concept resonates even more today, and a new playbook addresses CX in the context of the emerging digital-first, post-COVID-19 environment. This climate requires enterprises and customers to push themselves in creative directions. In Empathy in Action, authors Bates and Petouhoff bring the one-to-one mandate into the current experience revolution fueled by expectations for digital-first, omnichannel engagements. Personalization and empathy have become the new standard, and companies that don’t adapt will be left behind.

They describe the requirements of this emerging empathy-infused experience paradigm that empowers and enables employees to become force multipliers and delivers more engaging, meaningful, and impactful experiences to customers. Furthermore, they maintain that achieving high levels of innovation requires an empathetic company culture in which employees actively participate in delivering the next evolution of the CX instead of maintaining the status quo. The new experience standards, with empathy at the core, go beyond technology: they rely on human values.

I agree that in developing a customer-experienced-focused culture, companies must create a set of core company values to rally around. They must coach employees toward those values and develop a leadership purpose that combines the company goals with employee well-being and performance to drive empowerment; to inspire an empowered culture in which people feel confident that they have the freedom to act upon their instincts requires trust and autonomy. As Bates and Petouhoff share in the book, “happy employees make for happy customers.”

One company that stands out to me for embodying the concept of achieving empathy by focusing on human values is Zappos. The online shoe store exemplifies a culture unencumbered by policies but instead empowered to act in customers’ best interests. Tony Hsieh, who helped launch the business in 1999, garnered fame for his avant-garde vision, which veered away from policy making. Instead, the company empowered customer service reps to do whatever they felt was right for the customer and the company. That approach yielded unimaginable yet remarkable anecdotes such as reps sending flowers if a customer fell ill, chatting with customers about their families (average handle time wasn’t a metric) and sending free replacement products if orders were reported defective.

In large part, those measures resulted from the online retailer not measuring CSRs’ performance by average call handle time. Instead, Zappos encouraged them to go above and beyond for customers and reward them for the innovative ways they resolved customers’ issues. The entire model originated around building emotional connections with customers and listening to their needs.

Like the Zappos model, Bates and Petouhoff proclaim that businesses must create experiences deeply infused with empathy at every step. Unfortunately, many companies contend with three internal challenges that tend to block empathy-infused CX. These include a lack of data transparency, organizational silos, and an unwillingness to transform digitally.

To succeed in this new experience-as-a-service economy, companies must distill information about their customers to understand their buying journeys, centralize such insights, and make them accessible to customer-facing employees in real time. Then they can proactively orchestrate relevant offers, support, and communications at the correct times and places in the customers’ journeys. Leaders must also communicate the quantitative and qualitative benefits to executives to secure continued investments in digital technologies. But if data, organizational, and technological barriers exist, companies can’t succeed at delivering empathy.

Bates and Petouhoff offer a helpful “Empathy Pillars Framework” to overcome the data, organizational, and technology hurdles that plague most organizations. By implementing the “Listen, Understand + Predict, Act, and Learn” framework as guidance, companies will engage with customers based on their needs. Then companies will proactively orchestrate omnichannel experiences that motivate consumers in the channel of their choice and when they require assistance.

Creating empathy in action at every level of an organization means reorganizing and reorienting. It means using data as a trusted currency. And it means adopting new business models and thinking radically in some ways. By following the four-step framework described in Empathy in Action, companies will be in a better position to address these issues. They will also succeed at linking employee experience with the CX and ultimately maximizing the customer value proposition by moving from reactive to customer adaptive.


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