In a recent article I wrote on LinkedIn, I argued that "customers don't experience empathy. They experience the impact of the business having it". In this maiden blog post, I want to explore this in more detail. In doing so, I bring to bear not just a passing interest in empathy and emotions, but over two decades of exposure as a behavioural scientist (the first anthropologist to work for the UK government and c-suites) helping improve processes, plans and creating competitive advantage.
It's absolutely a good thing that empathy is now widely recognised as vital to the modern, socially-aware business which wants to engage with customers and stakeholders in a meaningful, ethical and high-impact manner.
It's not such a good thing that the term has become very much a fixture of those offering consulting founded on the classical mainstays of consumer psychology, re-treading approaches which have largely failed to improve employee experience. The key reason why these efforts have failed before? Mainly because they lack conceptual capital. Relying on Maslow's hierarchy of needs, various psychometric approaches and assorted metrics of varying reliability won't cut it. Conceptual capital refers to the fact that any organisation has to have a robust and bespoke understanding of what it is they are attempting to do and why. Hence, anyone offering to help a business 'become empathetic' needs to be challenged on precisely h=what they understand the impact of this to be.
'Empathy' is not felt. Empathy is not an emotion. Empathy is not a state of mind. Empathy might be a skill that some have (or can be trained and / or liberated by organisational culture to employ) - but no few come away from any intervention, meeting or event saying "I really felt they empathised with me". Surveyed, they may well agree - but survey answers are not reliable when the question is framed in that way.
When we think of a company being empathetic in its CX activities, what we really mean is that the customer (whether being engaged with on an inbound, outpund, reactive or active basis) has received messaging and behaviours which have created a desired emotional effect. Has the customer "felt us" or "had the feels" for the brand as a result of amazing service, instant solution-generation .... or something else? Listening to a complaint and neither validating nor resolving it is not empathetic. Passing a customer to another department who 'might' be able to help is not empathetic.
But the customer coming away with a refreshed emotional commitment to the brand: that's the result of a touchpoint with an empathetic organisation delivered by a skilled and liberated service agent (or bot). Creating surprise, joy, astonishment or delight - making a customer's day: that's emotion. That's value. That's loyalty and organic promotion with enhanced NPS score right there.
However, all of the above emotional effects (at the neurochemical level) are the emergent property of deep, data-driven, authentic and tailored digitally-empowered empathy. Complicated but not difficult - difficult because so much of the business may have to be re-engineered to allow it to deliver the surprise, joy, astonishment, delight, day-changing impact ..... but, as they say, we have no choice but to so re-engineer. Whether in micro-retail or at scale, we need the authenticity of genuine emotional connections with real people from real people. As Lt.Col Shannon of the US Marine Corps (made famous in 'The Men Who State at Goats') declared: 'We have no choice but to be wonderful'.