Empathy, Dollars, and Sense

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You can’t swing a metaphorical stick online these days without hitting a site that talks about developing customer empathy. The idea is that organizations, customer service providers, and those of us who design self-service applications should aim higher than simply understanding customers and the tasks they are trying to accomplish. We should empathize with them. 

Web sites like Empathy Insight (empathyinsight.com) and Customer Empathy Institute (www.customerempathyinstitute.com) preach that we need to engage with customers on a deeper, more emotional level if we are going to truly provide them with service that meets their needs. Business consulting firm Booz & Co. suggests that customer empathy can offer a strategic economic advantage to organizations competing to win and retain customers.

As a user experience professional, I am happy about anything that raises awareness of the importance of designing customer interactions from the customer’s point of view, but I’ll admit I also have some reservations about the current buzz about empathy. Awareness of the emotional component of customer interactions is definitely valuable—and not just the angry ones who scream at IVRs and call center agents. In fact, I often advocate for in-person user research and usability testing precisely because it allows us to develop a rapport with customers and key in on subtle emotional cues that are easily missed in remote testing methods. I also recommend that my clients “walk the customer corridor” to experience customer interaction from the customer’s point of view. On the face of it, the philosophy I espouse seems compatible with the concept of developing customer empathy as a method for improving an organization’s relationship with its customers. So why am I concerned about all of the attention surrounding customer empathy?

My first concern is that shifting our focus toward empathy will distract organizations away from other aspects of building a positive customer experience that are still inadequately addressed at many organizations. In my consulting practice I encounter a distressingly large number of organizations that lack the most basic information about customer interactions. These companies hire me to help them understand and improve customer experience, so their hearts are in the right place, but I often discover these same organizations don’t know who’s calling, why they’re calling, or what customer opinions are about their telephone self-service experience. Such data is not sufficient on its own to allow companies to reach customer service goals, and I believe it must be a precursor to customer empathy initiatives. Without this baseline data, it’s often impossible to solve interaction problems that lead to both customer dissatisfaction with IVR systems and the resulting disappointing performance from the organization’s perspective. Moving on to empathy before you have a solid understanding of who’s calling and why is like deciding to write sonnets before you know the alphabet.

I am not saying this to rain on the empathy parade; I fully support considering affective and emotional components of customer interaction in support of designing better, more engaging self-service systems. However, I am saying that shifting the focus to empathy too soon might be ill-advised for some organizations. Why? Because the most common reason clients give for not collecting basic information about customer interactions is cost. Technology is not the barrier to getting good data about customer interactions—it’s money. If you don’t have available resources to develop a way to track who’s calling and why, then you surely don’t have the resources to work on customer empathy. Perhaps I’m being too practical here, but it doesn’t make sense to divert resources away from these baseline projects.

My other problem with customer empathy is that it’s such an easy sell to some organizations. It’s a great phrase, it promotes an image many companies find desirable, and it proves a company is tuned into the latest trends in customer service. As such, I worry about empathy becoming another hollow buzzword that we all say but don’t back up with action. Talk about empathy all you want, but unless that talk is backed up by time and dollars spent to actually implement changes, customers will see right through it. So my plea is this: If the concept of developing customer empathy is appealing to your organization, then put your money where your heart is. 

Customer empathy programs offer a rich source of data that can transform the way you interact with customers, but only if you commit to understanding customer goals and behavior first, and only if you commit resources to acting on the information you find. 

Susan Hura, Ph.D., is principal and founder of SpeechUsability, a VUI design consulting firm. She can be reached at susan@speechusability.com.

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