Don’t Put Your Customer Hat On!


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Have you ever been instructed to “put your customer hat on?” That may be bad advice.

“Put your customer hat on” is a favorite line of process improvement consultants and workshop facilitators. I’ve even said it myself. It means to imagine yourself as a customer, empathize with them, and approach the problem from the customer’s perspective.

The facilitator who says it has good intentions: to redirect the team from a company-centric (inside-out) perspective to a customer-centric (outside-in) perspective. By thinking from the customer point-of-view, we believe we can both improve the customer experience and meet the stated business objective.

But there’s a serious flaw in the exercise, especially in B2B. Many of us have never been a customer of the product or service we are improving. Even if we have been a customer, our experience is unlikely to represent all customers. Therefore, we attempt to rationalize customer values with logic based on our own experiences.

The “customer hat” encourages rational empathy

Imagine designing a customer support process for a hospital billing supervisor, but you’ve never been one yourself. You “put your customer hat on” and recall your own experiences contacting customer support for your cable company, credit card, or bank.

In those situations, perhaps you’re like me: you prefer to interact with a live agent over chat. Rather than navigate an automated phone system or send an email and wait for a response, you like a real-time interaction through chat or text. The agent can usually resolve your issue while you multitask. It’s great!

Because you’ve never been a hospital billing supervisor, you recall your own experiences as a customer and reason that the billing supervisor will appreciate live agent chat just like you do. This is rational empathy – you are empathizing with the customer, but it’s based on reasoning from your own assumptions, not the customer’s reality.

Rational empathy is dangerous

The problem with rational empathy is that we all have blind spots – things we don’t know that we don’t know.

We’re often missing critical data about our customers because we have never walked in their shoes. In his book Reorganize for Resilience: Putting Customers at the Center of Your Business, Harvard Business School Professor Ranjay Gulati describes how the electronics retailer Best Buy confronted its customer blind spots. Best Buy created working teams to understand different customer segments. One important segment was the Busy Moms – female shoppers that came into the store, often with kids in tow. That team realized:

“…because many senior managers were men, their understanding of female buying behavior was not normally as extensive as their understanding of male consumers.”

To put it bluntly, men had designed the store experience to appeal to other men and that design wasn’t meeting the needs of female shoppers.

Through the Busy Moms segment working team, Best Buy identified five value propositions that resonated with female customers. Redesigning Best Buy stores to appeal to this and other segments boosted financial performance by 9% compared to traditional product-focused stores.

This story demonstrates the danger of rational empathy – letting your customers (and your profits) walk out the door because of your own blind spots. 

The men in charge couldn’t just “put their customer hats on” and think like women.

Use empirical empathy instead

The opposite of rational empathy is empirical empathy – empathy gained from observation or experience. When we understand the customer’s perspective – by collecting Voice of the Customer (VOC) data – then we can discover our own blind spots and make customer-centric decisions.

Let’s revisit hospital billing supervisor example. Rather than “putting our customer hats on” and assuming they like chat because we like chat, we should ask some actual hospital billing supervisors about their needs and motivations.

Through customer interviews, I learned that hospital billing supervisors spend up to 7 hours every day in meetings. They manage teams with 15 direct reports who come to them with issues and questions. When the supervisors have time to contact customer support, they are working through a batch of complex issues, often while eating lunch.

“My issues are complex, and probably can’t be solved over chat,” one explained when I interviewed her. 

“I’m a super-user,” said another, “and I know you need time to research these issues. I’d rather send an email and move on than wait around for hours on chat.”

Understanding VOC through interviews and focus groups often seems like a burdensome exercise for companies that want to act quickly. It takes time to schedule and conduct the interviews and share the insights with stakeholders. However, consider the cost of making an investment or process change based on rational empathy alone. Can you afford to waste resources or alienate customers because of your blind spots?

Don’t put your customer hat on. Take the time to listen and understand your customers. Develop empirical empathy and make better business decisions.

Don’t Put Your Customer Hat On! was originally published on Seaton CX.

Dave Seaton, CCXP
Chief Espresso Officer at CXPRESSO—the weekly email for brave CX leaders. Also an award-winning customer experience consultant, leadership philosopher, keynote speaker, and fanatical Wordle ninja. (The best starting word is CREST—trust me on this.)


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