The pandemic has transformed the age of the customer into the age of empathy. For many businesses, infusing that level of emotional connection into their communications is new territory. But it is fast becoming a business imperative as a way of engaging customers who are grappling with economic hardships and ongoing uncertainty.
Communicating with empathy has always been key to deeper engagement with customers, but the current crisis has made it table stakes. In these anxious times, empathy can be a superpower for strengthening customer relationships — but how do you know if you’re doing it right?
Here’s a practical 4-step approach to spark new perspectives on communicating with empathy for the greatest impact.
1. Understand how empathy works
There’s an interesting pitfall about how we often think of empathy. We say, “put yourself in the customer’s shoes” to try to understand them better. But empathy isn’t about imagining how YOU would feel if you were them. (That’s about you, and may be influenced by your biases.) It’s about trying to understand what it feels like to BE THEM, what their concerns and needs might be, so you can better support them.
An effective way to build that understanding is by creating personas and journey maps. Personas help you articulate the attitudes and behaviors of different segments of customers, and journey maps help you identify where/when/how those people may be most impacted. Together, those insights can inform your communication strategies.
From there, you’ll want to better understand the different kinds of empathy because they can have a different effect:
- Cognitive Empathy is when you listen and try to understand another person’s feelings in a given situation. It’s a logical perspective. Intellectually you understand it, but emotionally, you’re not there yet.
- Emotional Empathy is when you engage more deeply and can actually feel the other person’s feelings (e.g., what makes them sad now makes you sad). It’s helpful from a support perspective, but too much may sound ingenuine coming from a business.
- Compassionate Empathy is when you demonstrate (by what you say and do) that you really understand and care about the other person’s feelings. It’s often when you feel compelled to take action to help.
To communicate effectively, you need a good balance of these three types of empathy. Your company needs to convey not only that you understand and relate to customers’ feelings, but that you care about helping in ways that are directly relevant.
2. Use empathy the right way, at the right time
Amid health concerns, economic meltdown and prolonged uncertainty, millions of consumers and business owners are emotionally stretched to the limit. Their patience and tolerance is tapped out. That doesn’t mean you want to relate on a downer level, but you need to be sensitive to it. Here are some key communication strategies:
- Lead with empathy. Yes, people want to hear there’s hope on the horizon, to feel reassured and moving toward normalcy. But first, they often need to hear empathy that recognizes their current vulnerability, so they feel seen and understood.”You can’t meet emotion with reasoned facts or data. You can only meet emotion with emotion, and move people with you,” says Helio Fred Garcia, a professor of crisis management at New York University. “The most helpful statement begins with acknowledgement of people’s anxieties and uncertainty. Then outline the big picture and action items.”2
As an example, in the earliest days of the pandemic, Beyond the Arc compared various airline emails from a CX perspective. The most engaging communications lead with compassionate understanding about unsettling changes, before outlining their new strategies. By comparison, the airlines that launched right into how they’re addressing issues seemed almost off-putting in their lack of emotion. That difference can influence people’s impression of the brand.
- Keep it simple. In times of crisis, people are overloaded with information. Processing everything can be challenging, so people may get confused more easily or pay even less attention to details.3 Keep your messaging simple with concise key takeaways that clearly stand out.
- Reach out in waves. As we’ve seen with this pandemic, areas less impacted are sometimes more resistant to taking recommended precautions. It’s a typical response that people resist change if it doesn’t seem relevant to them. But your company may be sharing important updates that have all your customers’ best interests in mind. So you may need to engage different customers at different times (and in different ways), based on where they are in the overall cycle of the crisis experience.
Again, you could use personas to identify customer segments and prioritize by level of impact. That can help you define a communications plan in terms of how many waves you’ll need, the most relevant timing, and the most engaging way to reach out based on different personas and customer relationships.
These principles also apply to your reactive messaging, including customer service, executive office escalations, and media statements. As Steven Ramirez, CEO of Beyond the Arc, observes, “When you are responding directly to a customer, or fielding a media inquiry, try to move past the perceived need to defend yourself. Acknowledge the concern, and provide information that helps people understand options or make decisions.”
3. Earn trust by being believable
The Covid era has sparked numerous emails from big brand CEOs who want to “personally reach out.” But when customers need to solve problems, are companies really walking the walk of empathy? And will they sustain that personal touch once life returns to “normal”?
In a crisis, people turn to familiar, trusted sources of advice — and you want your company to be one of them. How can you be more believable?
- Be cautious about promises. Trust is an organization’s most valuable asset, especially during a crisis, notes Garcia. “Trust is primarily based on promises fulfilled, expectations met, and when stated values are lived experiences.” In navigating situations like the current rollercoaster, you need to be cautious. “Be careful of what promises the organization makes to the public or to employees; in a rapidly evolving situation, those promises might need to be broken.”4
- Go with what you know. People are hearing an overload of conflicting information, which can heighten a sense of uncertainty and anxiety. Be clear and accurate about what you know and what you don’t, and realistic about what you can do, and what you can’t — at any given time. Your goal isn’t to make people feel overly confident; it’s to help them feel more in control.
- Walk the walk. Consider your customer journey map, then look at the various touch points from an empathy perspective. What are their feelings and motivations at certain stages? And more importantly, why? Those insights can help you take practical actions that demonstrate a compassionate understanding and improve customer experiences.
4. Put empathy to work for you
When you focus first on empathy, every touch point is shaped by understanding your customers on a personal, emotional level. And when your communications resonate more, it can create a trusting anchor for a lasting relationship.
Empathy can also increase lifetime value. For example, after a major bank introduced a credit card for millennials that was designed to inspire emotional connection to feel more secure, use among the segment increased by 70% and new account growth rose by 40%.6
In today’s anxious times, you may be less focused on marketing campaigns, and more on reinventing ways to support customers through unusual circumstances. Either way, putting empathy at the center of your strategy will help you help them more effectively.
Empathy is your superpower to increasing engagement with customers, now and for the long-term. When you apply empathy in the right ways to build trust and add emotional value, you may be doing the most empowering and profitable thing for your customers and your business.
Have questions or feeling challenged with how to reset your communications with more empathy-focused messaging and tone? We can help. Let’s connect for a quick chat.
1 4 Ways Empathy Will Lead You to More Success, Inc.com
2, 4 In Crisis Communication, Start with Empathy, Security Management, March 31, 2020
3 Psychology of a Crisis, CDC 2019 Update
5 How leaders can bridge the empathy gap in a crisis, Strategy+Business, Oct 2, 2019
6 The New Science of Customer Emotions, Harvard Business Review, Nov 2015
7 Coronavirus Forcing Financial Institutions to Revamp Contact Centers, March 17, 2020