Use Empathy to Improve Your Customer Experience Strategy


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Innovate or die.
While reality in the realm of customer experience professionals might not be quite that stark, there’s plenty of hubbub these days about innovation – and recent events across the world that have impacted the ways we do business have upped the ante. The truth is that both the pressure for innovation and the need to survive as a business is at an all-time high.

Photo by jacoblund via iStock

There’s evidence for this in a prior survey by Forrester Research, Inc., of 100 customer experience professionals. While times were different then, nearly 50 percent of those who responded identified differentiation as their executive strategy. And 13 percent of the respondents said they want their companies to provide the best customer experience across all industries. (see Forrester blog, Customer Experience Innovation Done Right).

So, while brands want to use innovation to differentiate from their competition and meet the evolving expectations of their customers, accomplishing either isn’t easy. In fact, few brands know what customer experience innovation really is, let alone how to achieve it. This problem was the spark for the research by Kerry Bodine, a former vice president and principal analyst with Forrester.

To start thinking about how to make innovation part of your customer experience strategy, read New Research: You’re Doing Customer Experience Innovation Wrong (a prior Bodine article for the Harvard Business Review). An important baseline to understand is that Bodine defines customer experience innovation as “The creation of new experiences that drive differentiation and long-term value.”

Employ Empathy to Better Understand Customer Needs
Bodine says that “customer experience professionals must examine their business challenges and associated opportunities in a different way — from the outside in.” She adds that the first step toward innovation “requires immersion in customers’ lives,” with the ultimate goal of “developing empathy for your customers so that you can discover their unmet needs.”

Empathy is indeed a critical means to understand what customers really need. This is all the more so true for brands that interact with their customers during emotionally charged events that bring about stress, anxiety or uncertainty. As examples, consider how credit card companies should interact with customers who have stolen credit cards, or how wireless carriers should interact with customers who have lost their mobile phones.

It’s important, though, to not confuse empathy with sympathy. The distinction between the two is much more than a nuance.

sym•pa•thy noun 1. feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune

em•pa•thy noun 1. the ability to understand and share the feelings of another

Sympathy allows you to feel bad for the customer’s situation, but empathy puts you in your customers’ shoes. Remember that these are real human beings with real emotions, looking to your company for help. We at Andrew Reise sometimes see even the best customer experience professionals — albeit with the good intentions of efficiency and execution — rely too much on the sequential process outlined by a journey map, or the personality profile described in a persona.

While personas and journey maps are tremendously valuable, they alone are not enough. They can’t completely describe the emotional state of customers who, for example, are suffering with the loss of a job or juggling the stress of a fender bender — scenarios in which customers need help from their health or car insurance companies. True understanding (via empathy) of customers’ emotions opens the door to better responses to their specific needs.

This is where the rubber can really hit the road to differentiate from your competition. Customer experience professionals must be able to move from feeling empathetic to taking actions that solve problems. Unfortunately, we often encounter customer experience cultures in which empathetic employees are not empowered to go above and beyond in the most critical moments because of the company’s internal policies or efficiency metrics. As a best practice, companies should allow for empathy and empower employees to take action.

An example of this is Ritz Carlton, which gives its employees a budget of up to $2,000 per guest to delight, fix problems, or make amends for mistakes. This could be something as simple as picking up a bar tab, or something as significant as giving a guest a free night’s stay.

Many health insurance companies we work with are in the thick of redefining the experiences they extend to their customers. We advise that they listen to their customers to better understand the emotions throughout the customer journey, and incorporate those findings into their journey maps so they can better design empathetic experiences that are seamless and effortless. That focused effort can reveal insights about what kind of emotional state customers will have and their corresponding needs therein. It can also help them plan for life events, such as getting married, the arrival of a new baby, or reaching a landmark age.

Leveraging this approach, we found noteworthy opportunities to create new experiences — from sales to marketing to customer service. A specific example could be a more personalized and empathetic approach to discussing care management programs with the parents of a child who has been diagnosed with a life-changing condition such as diabetes or, even worse, cancer.

Mapping customer journeys with a lens of empathy will identify new ways to capture, engage and retain customers during stressful periods of change. Showing up in these critical moments creates brand loyalty and positive word of mouth, which translates to differentiation and success.

Elevate Your Customer Experience Strategy
So where do you go from here? Unfortunately, there’s no easy firmware update to make innovation happen. One place to start might be to identify customer interactions where you need to be more empathic; then brainstorm to design new experiences around those interactions.

Getting to true innovation will require a dedicated effort, with a steady stream of ideas, funding, inspiration, customer insights, and trial and error. You’ll need internal initiative, leadership from the top, and a structured approach that fosters creativity. You might even need some external help. If you’d like an in-depth conversation to assess your situation and identify innovation strategies, feel free to reach out to us.

Tim Carrigan
Tim Carrigan, Consulting Vice President at Andrew Reise Consulting, helps clients develop and deliver on their customer experience strategies. He recently co-authored the Customer Experience Fiasco, Learning from the Misguided Adventures of a Customer Experience Executive, now available in hard copy or Kindle version through More information on the book, along with other customer experience case studies and guides, is available at Follow Tim on twitter (@timjcarrigan)


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