Eighty-six percent. That’s the proportion of people willing to pay more for a great customer experience — 86%. Combine that with data showing that 59% of today’s customers say that customer experience significantly impacts purchase compared with just 38% pre-COVID. Customer experience has proven to be more important and valued than ever before.
With most big brands already competing to provide superior customer experience, outliers that don’t measure up can’t wait to reevaluate the processes and tactics that contribute to their overall customer experience. Customer satisfaction has always been an important metric to measure and manage, but it’s never mattered more than it does today in the unprecedented climate of COVID-19. The advent of the internet, smartphones, and social media mean customers can reach out and share reactions from anywhere in the world. If your brand benefited from an excellent customer experience process, you most likely have done well before the pandemic! Others who have hovered around the “average” or “just getting by” customer service process and experience have found that their customers will not stick around if they are unhappy. To add to that, they will add to the collective customer service experience data being amassed online by sharing their experience! As times, attitudes and tolerances have shifted – the big question remains: How do we keep customers happy?
The answer lies in what worked for many during the pandemic: exercise your empathy muscles.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. As humans, we share the potential to experience similar feelings. It’s not something that can be achieved through a quick fix or a training course but instead is achieved through mindful, open practice. Often described as a shared feeling or a mutual understanding, empathy in customer service is about understanding your customer’s needs and reactions, not just their wants. It takes time to understand the impacts of situations and relate to one’s responses to those impacts, essentially observing and learning from how a customer may feel.
For example, Google made Hangouts Meet free for its G-Suite members (https://blog.google/products/meet/bringing-google-meet-to-more-people/) to help larger remote teams keep in touch. With this change, Google demonstrated empathy in understanding that people felt disconnected globally through mandated isolation, quarantine, and limits on public gatherings. Google reacted to these pain points and pivoted their pricing model based on empathy for their customers vs. cushioning their bottom line.
Similarly, when Slack quickly engaged with customer feedback online, they exercised their empathy muscles. For example, when a long-time customer expressed frustration with the position of a one-click call button, SlackHQ actively listened and adjusted its functionality to accommodate. Being able to relate to customers through empathy reinforces to the customer that they made the right buy choices and has aligned with a brand that shares their values.
Domino’s Pizza faced hard decisions after the stock dropped by nearly half a billion dollars after complaints pizzas arrived cold, late, or burnt. In response, CEO Patrick Doyle instituted changes that included putting his cell phone number on all advertisements so that customers could call him directly if their orders weren’t up to par. By making himself accessible and accountable to the customer population, Doyle demonstrated his over-the-top commitment to customer experience and quality. A leader lacking empathy would take actions that insulated him from the impacts of the poor service delivery.
Getting to Know your Customer
The first step to customer empathy is getting to know your customers through curiosity: ask them questions. Customers’ answers will reveal their interests, needs, and problems. Analyzing problems from the customer’s perspective identifies their priorities and values in decision making; if they figure out what they’re going through, effective solutions can be engineered and catered to their unique needs.
Empathy is about understanding others’ feelings and expressing through one’s – in this case, the Brand’s – actions that those feelings are aligned. Empowering people by showing them that they are being heard and understood is a differentiating factor of success in the digital age. Identifying efficient yet personable ways to engage with customers is an ongoing challenge. It turns out that regular use of a customer feedback system has emerged as a powerful and proven method of expressing customer care and curiosity in the everyday use of a feedback system.
Zappos, Zara, Amazon. As CEO Jeff Bezos once said, “Insist on a truly customer-centric culture.” No exceptions. And he means it; Amazon deploys user-centric principles in all facets of its business, from how it designs its website for maximum usability to how it tries to minimize mistakes when fulfilling orders. One of Amazon’s core values is to insist on positive customer experiences. As a result, all employees are charged with making customers happy. This philosophy is applied from answering questions via a chat window or phone call to delivering an order on time—every time they interact with a customer, including post-purchase check-ins.
Communicate with Transparency
Social media has made communication between companies and customers ubiquitous and instantaneous. Reputations built in 5 years can take a mere 5 minutes to stain in the public eye of the Internet. A powerful way to digitally empathize with your customers is to be transparent in your communication; this means being honest and upfront with customers. Companies that employ customer care processes that encourage listening and responding with reflective and thoughtful awareness, most importantly, strengths translate to authenticity. Having the patience to hear a customer out, to allow them the space to express their feelings regarding their experiences, will speak volumes in the very public arena of online commerce. The data gathered from this practice will allow your decisions to be informed with an empathetic perspective. Empathic engagement also de-escalates volatile disagreements, setting a tone of mutual respect and discourse. Companies that remain transparent can employ empathy for learning and evolving rather than just being suitable for the sake of it.
Exercising empathy muscles can happen right now. It doesn’t have to be a huge gesture, but a simple “I’m sorry you had a bad day.” or “Ugh, I understand and can’t stand it when that happens!” can go a long way. Likewise, a simple “Thanks for your time, great talking to you.” will show people you’re present and engaged at the moment. Customer-centric service is precisely that, prioritizing customers’ experience by intentionally remaining curious about how they are, what their experience was like, and most importantly, using that data to inform the decision made on a strategic level. Everyone appreciates being seen.