In the digital age, when customers are more knowledgeable and have higher expectations and more choices than ever before, a company’s fortunes rest on its ability to tune into their feelings and create an emotional connection.
As vital as empathy is, however, it can be elusive in an app-driven world that tends to create distance between companies and their customers’ actual human experience. Compounding the challenge, many businesses now rely on data, rather than what they see and hear, to ascertain customer preferences.
Nevertheless, empathy remains the necessary starting point to understanding customers’ motivations, needs, desires, and behaviors, and it’s the secret sauce in delivering products and experiences that foster brand loyalty and propel the company ahead of competitors.
According to a 2020 Businessolver report, 91 percent of CEOs say their company is empathetic, but only 68 percent of employees agree. Empathy is a critical business issue that the entire C-suite needs to address.
It’s clear that company leaders need to go all in on empathy and make sure it is practiced daily inside the business. And by “company leaders,” I don’t mean just the CEO or CMO, but the entire C-suite. Every C-level executive must think of themselves as a “chief empathy officer,” responsible for instilling this ethic into the company’s operations and culture.
Let’s take a look at a range of C-level roles and how each leader can help.
In the connected world, “just having satisfied customers isn’t good enough anymore,” author Ken Blanchard has observed. “If you really want a booming business, you have to create raving fans.” Achieving this starts at the top. In everything the CEO does—from hiring the senior team to setting the organizational culture to acting as the public face for the company—he or she must cultivate a delightful human experience as the business’s core value.
It can’t just be lip service. The CEO needs to make sure that all teams are able to see, hear, talk to, and deeply understand customers and use those insights to optimize every facet of product design, development, and support.
For example, CEOs can require “empathy hours” in which people at all levels devote time to specific tasks that involve interacting with and better understanding customers. Whether it’s blocking off time on the weekly calendar to observe customers using the product or putting in some time at a customer support desk, these immersion hours can lead to insights—unavailable anywhere else—that build up an intuitive understanding of customers’ desires and needs.
We live in an age of data-driven marketing. Technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence are widely used to gain insights into customer trends and behaviors, and that’s great. However, all too often, data has become a proxy for the invaluable human insight that comes from listening and observing with empathy. Clickstream analytics, for example, may tell you what’s happening but not why.
A smart CMO, whose organization is usually the first touchpoint for any customer or potential one, appreciates this distinction and drives the marketing teams to recognize that data simply isn’t enough to create great customer experiences. He or she demands a mindset of constantly stepping into customers’ shoes and insists on processes and technologies that understand customers by seeing, hearing, and talking to them directly.
Fast, constant, substantive human insights keep companies grounded in what customers really care about, so they can serve their real needs. Today’s winning CMO adopts that as a guiding principle.
For example, CMOs and their teams can stop thinking in terms of personas. Companies have forever relied on these composite sketches, (for example, “the typical buyer is a 40-year-old married mom who drives an SUV) to define market segments. But does this really get to the heart of what customers think about, what they want, what keeps them up at night?
A smarter approach is to think of customers in terms of an empathy map: What do they say, do, think, and feel? Then build in-depth profiles around each based on learnings from immersion hours, user videos, any other research, data, and surveys.
The CFO traditionally has been responsible for straightforward functions like financial record-keeping, planning, and analysis, risk management, and statutory compliance. But the job is changing. According to an Accenture report, 86 percent of CFOs have increased their frequency and scope of collaboration across the C-suite.
And because CFOs are more focused on setting the future direction of the business, they now can, and should, have a role in customer experience. In all of his or her financial tasks, the CFO should be thinking about how to align the company’s resources around making that experience the best possible. The role may be unfamiliar to some CFOs, but the CFO has to understand the alignment of resources to address customer needs and also the role that disruption to the customer experience can play to both the risks and opportunities to the overall business model.
The days are gone when the chief information officer’s job was to “keep the lights on.” It’s so much more now. Since customers so often experience a business through its technology and judge the brand accordingly, it’s essential that CIOs stay tuned into the emotions of the customers who end up using their systems.
The modern CIO isn’t corporate overhead; he or she has become one of the stewards of the brand.
Beyond the traditional C-level executives I’ve cited, more and more companies are trying to bring a customer-facing rather than internally focused outlook into the C-suite with new roles such as chief insight officer and chief product officer. And they’re reshaping existing jobs such as Vice President of HR into “chief people officers.”
Empathy wasn’t even on HR leaders’ radar until recently. But companies now understand that the experiences an employee has in a company can ultimately reflect on customer experience in the forms of better service, higher retention, and other values. According to a Salesforce survey, 89 percent of revenue growth leaders said that improved employee experience leads directly to improved customer experience. In what has been more than a year of high stress and difficult times for all employees, the focus on employee experience and empathy has never been more important.
Employees who understand and love the company’s customer-focused mission can be a competitive advantage unto themselves.
Andy MacMillan is CEO of UserTesting, a human insight company.