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Empathy: the Magic Potion

A recent American Express survey found that more than three quarters of consumers “have bailed on a transaction or not made an intended purchase because of poor customer experience.” Somehow, business forgets that the reason it is in business is to serve its customers. Maybe that is easy to forget, since only a fraction of dissatisfied customers ever bother to complain.

Stats vary, but there is general agreement among researchers that well under one in 10 unhappy customers will take the trouble to go through a complaints procedure, while it is a well-established CMO yardstick that it takes ten times as many good experiences with a brand to compensate for one bad one, and that the likelihood of getting a new customer is ten times lower than the likelihood of making a new sale to an existing one. In an age when we can measure everything, if we can only look for the right things to measure, should this sorry state of affairs be allowed to persist?

Approaching customers from a perspective of empathy ought to result not just in prompt investment in appropriate CRM tools – that is almost the easy part – but in integrating the learnings from those tools in all aspects of the company’s operation. The customer may not know precisely what she wants, but has clear preference pointing away from the safe, and feasible, and towards the new and delightful. If you find it strange to see this word, delightful, in a business book, take a look at Guy Kawasaki’s Enchantment or Tim Leberecht’s The Business Romantic. They delve into customer-centricity at a deep, emotional level. That is the language business needs to be speaking to reach through the customer’s heart into her wallet. The customer, who has unbound opportunities to comparison-shop, and who is looking for products that make her feel good and not just ones which fulfill a need.

A good, solid set of features is axiomatic; it is not what wins the sale. Management thinker and author Steve Denning has this to say on the subject: “Instead of seeing business – and strategy, and business education – as a matter of figuring out how to defeat one’s know rivals and protect oneself against competition through structural barriers, if a business is to survive, it must add value to customers through continuous innovation and finding new ways of delighting customers.” Denning’s work over the last decade or so, published in Forbes and elsewhere, has largely centered on championing customer-centricity as an effective remedy for many of the ills of modern business. He is very clear in advocating that business needs “a different mental model” from what has gone on so far – of both the company, and its environment.

As I write this, I am preparing to give a talk at a conference for senior leaders of the white goods industry. In their case empathy, and good business sense, might lead them to conclude that while their aim, since the 19th century, has been to sell washing machines to customers, the customers’ aim all the way along has been to have clean clothing – not to put dirty clothes in a steel bin with water and powder and then wait for it to dry. It follows, therefore, that a better washing machine is no washing machine at all. Would it be a fair bet that some of them are already investing in, or partnering with, nanotechnology companies which are working on fabrics that require only a good shake to get clean, or simply do not get dirty at all? Understanding that value is to be found in the company’s relationship with its customers, not in selling them a washing machine, instantly shifts perspective, unlocking numerous opportunities. What else can a washing machine be? Does anybody even need a washing machine? What else can perform the task of getting clothes clean? How does the act of washing clothes relate to the existence of the fashion business?

How might this work in your industry?

Meanwhile, back at the office, empathy in direct conversations is fundamental to successfully implementing anything as complex as an innovation thinking program. It is not an easy thing, especially since you will need to be moving quickly. Pretty much everyone in the organization, will need to have their empathy glasses polished through appropriate training. This can take many forms, but all of them generally train participants to listen and then interpret what one has heard. A really good start is a technique which psychologist Marshall Rosenberg calls “radical listening.” This is familiar territory to every psychotherapist and mediation professional, but the rest of us require a little practice. It involves two simple steps. Step one is to fully hear out what the other person, or side, has to say. Step two is to repeat it, paraphrasing it so as to make sure the intended meaning has landed correctly in our heads. Dead simple, right? But really hard to remember it in the heat of a debate, and absolutely vital if we are to turn the idea of innovation thinking into practice.

Fast, effective innovation cannot function in an atmosphere of anything other than clear, transparent communication. Since empathy is nothing more than being able to see reality from another person’s perspective, empathy training also includes listening to the stories of others, to see how they perceive the World. To this end, a “human library” is a powerful tool, and is what it says on the label – a group of people who, as “living books” come into your environment and share their stories; stories which are, by design, very different from your own. Such human libraries exist in many cities, but if you cannot find one, gathering such a group of interesting people will mean your organization gains a substantial resource of viewpoints and perspectives that was not previously available to you.

Adapted from Ralph’s “The Pig not the Lipstick: Creativity, mindspace and agents of change - build a sustainable culture of innovation, using methods and approaches from the creative industries.” which is available for download as a Boma Open Access Book from Boma Poland.

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