Mind the Empathy Gap!

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Make no mistake: Within multi-stage and/or multi-channel relationships, the empathy gap between brand and consumer is widening, thereby severely undermining brand equity and posing new challenges to all those involved in brand strategy, communication and delivery. Alarmingly, much of the challenge is of the brands’ own making.

As consumers, we expect ever more relevance from our brands before, during and after purchase, not only in terms of the tangible relationship process but also in terms of the intangible relationship tone.

However, while most organizations now cite customer-centricity as one of their key strategic initiatives, many are still failing to get to grips with even the most basic customer experience issues that result in stress points in the relationship with the customer and ultimately in alienation and defection.



At the heart of this failure are often inflexible relationship (CRM) systems, short-term (acquisition-focused) customer strategy and a simple lack of customer awareness. These are often compounded by operational and management metrics that fail to identify significant customer experience problems and sometimes even obscure them.

It is generally recognized that today’s consumers are more likely to reject a brand on the basis of a single, “inappropriate” experience. It is typically assumed that certain tangible elements within the relationship lifecycle are at odds with consumer capability, need or expectation. This assumption is supported by a constant stream of surveys reflecting customer dissatisfaction with contact center service levels.


Poor brand delivery


Far less attention is paid, however, to the fact that rejection can also occur when brand delivery undermines the advertising-led brand promise, by failing to “bring to life” those brand values and personality traits that created the emotional rapport with the consumer in the first place.

In reality, optimal customer experience must reflect the target customer’s tangible and brand expectations at each point of interaction. Indeed, the two elements are inextricably linked. Despite this, day-to-day customer satisfaction is most often measured purely in terms that owe more to operational efficiency, while brand health is evaluated in terms of penetration.

Many of the tangible experience shortcomings are the result of CRM infrastructures that that been configured to drive business growth through the delivery of marketing and operational efficiencies. From the outset, however, they often fail to take sufficient account of the organization’s two biggest assets, its customers and its brand.

The empathy gap widens further when this form of CRM infrastructure is combined with an acquisition-focused customer strategy. The resulting experience is not only lacking in process and brand relevance, it is also heavily weighted toward pre-purchase service delivery. Post-purchase customers are often shocked at what they perceive to be the blatant decrease in service levels after they have been parted from their money.

It is alarming then, that a recent Accenture survey identifies “little sign” of a shift in management attitude toward the consumer. It reveals that the acquisition of new customers remains a top priority in the boardroom, while the notion of increasing revenue from existing customers is rated bottom of a list of five key objectives.



It is also no surprise, therefore, that another recent Accenture survey of customer experience reveals that customers feel that service has not improved over the last five years, while ASR’s survey, Service in Britain (in
Marketing
, June 8, 2005), reports that 90 percent of adults have complained about poor service in the past 12 months. No surprise also that 20 percent of customers have actually switched away from service brands over the last 12 months, citing poor customer service.

In the short term, therefore, these issues can cause the brand to hemorrhage both potential customers and actual customers at any point within the relationship cycle. In the longer term, the brand is eroding its own equity, as delivery continually makes a lie of the carefully crafted and communicated brand promise to an increasingly cynical market place.

In the short term, these issues can be ignored so long as more customers keep coming through the front door than leave through the back.

They do become a problem, however, when strategy (inevitably) shifts back from acquisition to retention. What shape will the organization be in to start delivering on the brand promise, and what mood will consumers be in to listen? It is at this point that the brand discovers the extent of the relationship chasm that it has created.

There are some positive signs that this shift is beginning. News that O2, the European mobile service provider, is re-jigging its marketing department so that it can place more emphasis on customer retention is likely to herald a strategic re-think in boardrooms up and down the land. As an O2 spokeswoman commented, “It’s about putting the emphasis back on the customer.”

British Gas provides a further example. It is intended that its brand promise “Doing the right thing” reflects its increasing focus on customer service delivery. However, by making such a broad statement, the company must be clear precisely on what ‘doing the right thing” means from the target customer’s point of view—at all key stages within the relationship. Having promised so much, British Gas’ failure to deliver on the customer’s own terms will only cause the empathy gap to widen still further.

Many organizations already cite a more customer-centric approach as a key strategic imperative. Yet for many of these same organizations, the challenge appears too great: The elements contributing to the empathy gap are firmly established because of long-implemented customer strategy and systems or because of the belief that customer-centricity is an “all or nothing” deal.



Most common, though, is the perception that customer experience improvements are difficult to identify, quantify, prioritize and sanction.

However, when the negative impact of the empathy gap on the relationship between the brand and the customer is accepted, inactivity is not an option.

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