Create Happier Customers & Employees: 7 Ways to Turn Empathy Into Action


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What Does Employee and Customer Empathy Really Mean, Anyway?

What do you think of when you hear the word empathy? How about customer empathy? Employee empathy?

We know that the best brands in the world create empathy for both employees and customers. Organizations who fail to do so are often held back from reaching their full potential.

Think about your best experiences as a customer. Have you ever felt like a company heard, understood, and recognized your perspective… and not felt better than you would have otherwise?

This holds true internally as well. A study by Google in 2017 showed the company’s most important new ideas came from teams created of employees exhibiting a wide range of skills including: curiosity toward others’ ideas, empathy and emotional intelligence.

Virtually every coworker you talk to from the C-suite on down will tell you that empathy matters. So why aren’t we getting better results from being so empathetic?

Well, it comes down to us misidentifying what empathy really is in the context of business, and how to use it.

In the simplest terms, empathy is defined as the ability to share feelings of another. Empathy is most effective when it’s sincere, authentic and compassionate.

Empathy is not:

  • Problem-solving
  • Sympathy
  • Misery comparison
  • Waiting to speak

When we talk about building a ‘culture of empathy,’ we mean one focused on understanding the experience of others.

But that’s only half of it.

The other half of empathy — equally important but often overlooked — is action.

It’s easy talk about becoming more inclusive and designing around empathy. We’ve all heard it before. And it’s easy to feel empathetic toward your employees and customers, but if they’re only feelings, they’re not doing much good.

To make empathy meaningful, you must shift into action.

As customer experience leaders, your work impacts individuals’ daily lives. Without empathy around that person and that experience, you don’t only risk missing an opportunity to make your customers’ and employees’ lives better… you risk directly making them worse.

So what is empathy? For the sake of your teams and your customers, just remember these four words:

Empathy is an action.

Now let’s look at some ideas of how we can exercise that empathy muscle throughout customer experience strategies, disciplines and processes.

7 Ways to Turn Customer and Employee Empathy into Action

1. Create active listening reinforcement.

An organization I worked with had “active listening” as a desired competency for employees. This meant that when employees engaged with one another, they were empowered to positively reinforce active listening behaviors.

This includes things like:

  • Rephrasing the issue back to the speaker
  • Using feeling language like “I understand why you’d feel so disappointed.”

The employees knew this was an important behavior to reflect in their daily interactions.

This culture of active listening also empowered employees to use phrases like “it doesn’t feel like I’m being heard” when active listening wasn’t shown. I witnessed a manager say this to a vice president who then swung his chair around, looked the employee in the eyes, and said “you’re right. I’m sorry. You have my full attention now and I hope you will share with me what’s most important to you.”

It was an amazing display of respect and empathy. And better yet, it was part of the overall culture.

2. Bring customer stories to life.

When things go wrong as we know they do, customers often share emotional and detailed feedback on how this affected them. These stories sometimes get escalated to managers or department leaders. The impact of these emotionally-charged stories is limited to those individuals who read the email or watched the customer video.

Sharing these negative stories can feel scary. It’s admitting fault at worst or neglect at best. Certain leaders might want to suppress this feedback from being shared beyond those who “need to know.”

I encourage you and the leaders at your organization to push through the discomfort. Empathy is created through understanding. These customer stories create another avenue to understand.

  • Start a staff meeting with a recent customer story.
  • Put the most thought-provoking one on the intranet.
  • Do whatever is necessary to get as many people in the organization to hear the customer in their own words.

Further Reading: Bad Feedback is the Best Feedback. Are You Listening For It?

3. Role-play the middle ground.

There are many ways teams train for empathy. Role-playing can be an effective part of this training. The way we listen to each other matters. Skills like restating the issue back to the customer, sharing exactly what steps are being taken, and acknowledging the specific feelings are all essential to reflecting empathy and understanding to a customer.

When setting up role-playing scenarios, it can be tempting to create over-the-top situations. It’s fun to play the role of the furious customer or the exceptionally happy one. Most conversations land somewhere in the middle.

Instead of creating scenarios that are the most extreme or fun to role-play, look for chances to create scenarios that are most realistic. This doesn’t necessarily mean role-playing the most common scenarios, though —  in fact, you’ll benefit from thoughtfully brainstorming some not-so-obvious scenarios.

Like exercise or learning something new, role-playing consistently will make an impact. Avoid the common mistake of roleplaying once per quarter and expecting results.

  • Include role-play exercises in regular training cadences.
  • Encourage employees to identify real customer stories to adapt into role-playing activities.
  • Use the tried-and-true “based on a true story” method to protect customer identities but get to the crux of real situations.

4. Practice empathetic problem-solving internally.

We all love solving problems. Fewer problems is always good, right?

But sometimes, employees and customers just want to be heard first.

Have you ever come home from a rotten day, started telling your significant other about that day, and have him or her jump into problem-solving mode? It looks something like this:

You: “There was so much traffic on the way to work today! I was late for my meeting and had to explain to my boss how unusual it was on the highway.”

Them: “You should really take the tollway tomorrow.”

Solution telling doesn’t express empathy. Empathy is all about listening and creating space for understanding. Presenting solutions quickly doesn’t allow for that space.

If you’re not good at empathetic problem-solving, that’s ok. It’s is a skill that takes time to develop for some people. If it doesn’t come naturally to you or those in leadership at your organization, don’t fret. Just keep encouraging this type of empathy-first discussion when problem solving in your organization.

If you don’t initially see the value in this type of problem-solving, that’s okay too. Taking more time to solve a problem than seems necessary can feel counterintuitive. To many, delaying a solution to listen to talk of feelings is inefficient and nonsensical.

But think of it this way: Empathetic problem-solving requires setting aside time and space for listening when needed. To jump straight to the solution is to take a shortcut. Would you want your employees taking shortcuts if that meant their work was less effective?

5. Storyboard and draw it out.

A technique that’s often overlooked is simply drawing out someone else’s experience as a means to understand it. This is often referred to as storyboarding – using pictures and words to tell the story in a limited space.

Our brains work differently when we draw. A lot of people will claim they aren’t good enough artists, but the output isn’t what’s important. What’s important is how drawing connects the brain in ways that are outside of the norm, allowing for more emotional responses and creativity.

In customer experience workshops, I often ask participants to draw out the worst scenario they’ve heard a customer go through. Then we draw out the ideal experience that could have happened. It’s a wonderful exercise in empathy.

Next time you’re faced with a customer experience you feel negative or even neutral about, try drawing out what happened. It may help you see what the experience was really like.

6. Use empathy mapping for understanding.

Empathy mapping is a concept included in Design Thinking. Empathy maps identify what the customer sees, hears, thinks, does, feels, and says in a given scenario.

Further Reading: Three Lessons Regarding Design Thinking & Customer Delight

Once the customer’s experience is literally “seen through their eyes,” it’s easier to identify the pains and gains the customer might experience.

Empathy maps can be effective for specific points in the customer journey, but they’re also useful for understanding specific customer personas. For example, developing an empathy map for customers who have hearing loss would help develop empathy for location-based needs.

7. Leverage culturally-centered advisory boards.

Customer advisory boards have been around a long time and are often based on customer segments like industries in B2B.

Culturally-Centered Advisory Boards can focus on specific cultural segments to share their experiences and recommendations.

A large consumer electronics brand created a specific room at their headquarters to develop accessible remote controls and technologies. To do this with empathy, they invited customers with disabilities to advise them throughout the entire product development process.

This meant inviting them into share what was frustrating about the standard tools and then inviting them back as they iterated throughout the product development cycle.

The result? Products that truly served the needs of the demographic, not just what leaders assumed those needs to be.

Recapping 7 Ways to Turn Customer and Employee Empathy into Action:

  1. Create active listening reinforcement. When employees engage with one another, assure they’re empowered to positively reinforce active listening behaviors.
  2. Bring customer stories to life. Empathy is created through understanding. Customer stories create another avenue to understand.
  3. Role-play the middle ground. Role-play consistently, and look for chances to create scenarios that realistic but not obvious.
  4. Practice empathetic problem-solving internally. Sometimes, employees and customers just want to be heard first.
  5. Storyboard and draw it out. Our brains work differently when we draw.
  6. Use empathy mapping for understanding. Empathy maps identify what the customer sees, hears, thinks, does, feels, and says in a given scenario.
  7. Leverage culturally-centered advisory boards. These can focus on specific cultural segments to share their experiences and recommendations.

Naturally, a list of seven actionable items can be overwhelming, so let’s clarify: Which of these methods is easiest for your to implement today? Start there.

Additional initiatives can be rolled out over time. But if you read this, feel like it’s interesting, and don’t take at least one action, then the time you’ve spent reading this is all for naught.

Because — say it with me, now — Empathy is an Action.


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