Why Every Business Leader Needs to Experience How a Customer Feels

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Source: pxhere.com/
“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures of emotion”
— Dale Carnegie.

When was the last time, as a business leader, you stepped into your own customers’ shoes? Have you attended a focus group or met personally with an end-user or customer recently? How much time do you spend getting close to your customers, I mean really close? If the only feedback you get on customers is indirect, from third parties, from reports or from statistics, then it’s time to get out of the boardroom and take time to experience your own company or brand, the way that your customers do.

There has been much talk about a lack of overall customer experience improvement or growth, some of which can be attributed to a ‘find and fix’ mentality that delivers process improvement and possibly some short-term ease and convenience benefits for the end customer. Find and Fix strategies have less impact in the long run and won’t drive commitment or build customer relationships.

The recent CustomerThink research study, “Customer Experience at a Crossroads: What Drives CX Success?”, reinforces the need for a deeper emotional connection strategy. Winning CX initiatives bring emotion into the mix it suggests. When the CX leaders in the study were asked to select very important attributes of experiences that drive customer loyalty, functional attributes dominated with 83% of all respondents overall selecting “easy.” However, those companies deemed to be ‘Winning’ vs. those ‘Starting’ or ‘Developing’ at CX, stood out as they prioritised Emotional attributes as their number one criterium.



Focusing on the functional and tangible stuff is the simple bit, but what about getting to the heart of understanding your customers and how they feel?

Emotion Pays Off

Appreciating the importance of generating positive emotions in the experience and making sure that customers feel good about doing business with you will have a far greater far reaching impact than the short-term, functional fix .

A Businessolver study found that 42% of customers say that they wouldn’t buy from a business that they viewed as lacking in empathy – i.e. from a company that doesn’t appreciate them, have a sensitivity to, or understanding of, how they feel. According to HBR, the top 10 companies in the Global Empathy Index 2015 increased in value by more than twice as much as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings. So, it really pays to have a better understanding of customers and care about how they are feeling.

Empathy is a Leadership Skill

The appreciation of customer emotion is not often talked about in boardrooms. When did you last hear, an exec say: “How are our customers feeling today?” Emotions and feelings are seen as ‘soft’ or ‘fluffy’ considerations. Yet, the appreciation of others’ feelings (whether directed at employees, colleagues or customers) is a key skill for any leader. Empathy, in a broader business environment, enables you to understand if the people you’re trying to connect with are actually engaged. It allows you to have a clearer idea of the effect your decisions and actions will have on people and adjust accordingly. Why should customer understanding be any different? Demonstrating empathy is vital to understanding your customers’ pain points and how you can solve them.

I came across an Interesting article that debated whether empathy can be learned. It argues that it can be (to a degree) but generally “the capacity for empathy is an innate human trait with a spectrum of strength and weakness”. Some people are more naturally gifted at quickly sensing other peoples’ point of view or experience. “People” doesn’t just mean colleagues, employees or other stakeholders, it also means customers.

As children we learn empathy, but as adults, it can be hard. Emotions and emotional understanding are difficult to measure and even harder to teach. What’s more, for some the whole subject of emotion may be uncomfortable, unfamiliar, or even foreign.

Empathetic leaders are more in tune with what their customers and employees are feeling. This isn’t because they have some psychic powers but because they take the time to actually listen to what their customers are saying. So back to my original question: When was the last time, as a business leader, you stepped out of the comforts of the boardroom and got close to how it feels to be a customer?

How to Get in Touch and Personally Engaged

A recent Harvard study found that CEOs spend 72% of their time in meetings and only 3% of their average 62.5-hour-working week with customers. That’s less than 30 minutes in the average day and less than the 10% spent on personal matters or the 8% spent traveling. Can this amount of time really give executives the best picture of their own customers?

If leaders are to better relate to their customers there are some practical things they can do. How do you get leadership out of their ‘functional’ and ‘rational’ comfort zone?



Get personally engaged. Be curious. Care. Show everyone else in the business that it’s okay to tap in to how the customer feels and to act upon the insights within the business. We hear so much about ‘walking in the customers’ shoes, but how often is this really done and does it really focus on what the customer is feeling about your experience?

Take time & disconnect from the boardroom to get the real picture. The best way to empathise and appreciate and ensure that this insight is driven into the business is ‘immersion’. Get away from the numbers and get a taste of the real lives of real customers. Immerse yourself in their physical, emotional, and mental experiences. The better you know how they feel, the better you can meet their needs. Think of this as another source of insight or voice of the customer which most leaders are happy to invest money and time into. This immersion should start at the top.

Leadership Examples

Some exec’s naturally look for what customers really care about in everything that they do. Ron Shaich at Panera Bread told me recently:

“I listen to people at dinner parties, on the street, in our stores. I am looking for patterns of feelings and desires and aspirations. I want to discover how to bring them the kind of food they dream about.”

Another example from Giles Fraser in a MyCustomer.Com article: “I heard a great story from a client when preparing this study about his mother’s experience of a new Sainsbury’s in Sussex. She was very impressed with how helpful and engaging the Sainsbury’s employee was who helped her with her shopping to the car. It was the CEO, Justin King.” That’s a great way to make the customer feel valued.

Ideas to Engage with Customers

There are many ways of getting a customer emotion reality check; some easier to do than others:

  • Spend more than 8% of your time with customers; get outside of your office
  • Find opportunities to observe, actively listen and hear customers – these events will be taking place
  • Sit in and listen in at the call centre. Better still, talk to customers as they call in
  • Execute a transaction online as a customer would; use webchat for a typical customer query or issue
  • When you know that employees are going to be meeting with customers, get involved, meet and greet them yourself
  • Just pick up the phone and call them up, video calls make this easy and human
  • If you can’t physically get out and see customers, get your insight team to organise regular ethnographic video journaling so you can get under the skin of what it’s like to be a customer
  • Organise a customer panel and take the opportunity to meet with them virtually or physically
  • Change places with a customer for a day or ask if you can shadow them
  • Get them into the boardroom for a day and so that they can even input into what’s going on
  • Invite customers to those meetings you are spending so much time in
  • Recruit customers into customer facing/oriented roles in your business

Think about how you would take time to get to know a friend? Those things can be applied to customers. Showing support, understanding, sensitivity to how they are feeling, their personal situation? It’s not done through a survey.

Make it a Habit

Having connected with the day to day lives and emotions of your customers, make it a regular way of doing business. It does take time and commitment, but aren’t customers important?

I’ve been working with a client who’s the CEO of a large aviation group for the last 6 months or so. He acknowledges and buys into the fact that growth will come in the long-term by strengthening relationships with his customers. This needs to be done by better understanding their needs both rational and emotional, and then connecting with these customers on their terms. In any presentation I’ve seen him give or whenever he talks to people within his business, he has always led with the same consistent message: “we need to build an emotional connection with the customer”. He has been impressively unwavering in his personal commitment to this mission.



CEO’s need to visibly lead by example so that this approach flows through the organisation and becomes a learned behaviour for others. If you aren’t’ seen to be doing this, how can the rest of the business follow? The credibility that you will get with your immediate team and beyond will be considerable, when you demonstrate how anchored in your customer’s reality that you are.

Don’t be most people (or the 8%).

“I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.”
— Ernest Hemingway

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