Defined by Merriam-Webster as “something that causes strong feelings of worry or anxiety,” stress has been rising in Americans for years. But now it seems to have become the prevailing emotion of the 2020s.
In a survey earlier this year by the American Psychological Association, 84 percent of adults reported feeling at least one emotion associated with prolonged stress in the preceding two weeks. The most significant sources of anxiety were the future of the nation, the coronavirus pandemic, and political unrest.
For businesses, this environment has accelerated a dramatic change: Market winners and losers are being decided based on empathy—companies’ ability to put themselves in customers’ shoes and show, in every interaction, deep and genuine concern for their wants, needs, and priorities.
PERMENENTLY CHANGED CUSTOMER EXPECTATIONS
To be sure, customer experience (CX)—how a company engages with customers at every stage of the buying journey—already had become an essential business priority in a digital age that has given consumers unprecedented choices and power. But making customers feel trust and delight on an emotional level has gone from being an aspiration to an expectation in the last year and a half.
A recent report by contact center technology provider Talkdesk shows that most consumers have higher expectations of companies they do business with today than before the pandemic.
In the retail sector specifically, according to the study, 58 percent of retail customers said their expectations of their preferred brands have increased in the last year. “Ease, speed and ability to transition across channels of choice during interactions rate among their top priorities,” the report said.
According to a McKinsey report in August, e-commerce sales continue to experience huge growth, with online penetration remaining approximately 35 percent above pre-pandemic levels and e-commerce logging more than 40 percent growth over the past 12 months.
This means that retailers truly can no longer ignore that the line between digital and in-store experiences for consumers has rapidly disappeared and consumers no longer differentiate where and when they had an experience with a business, just how it felt.
Even the most eternal optimist would have a hard time believing the stressed-out climate will subside anytime soon, so businesses need to be planning for 2022 and beyond with one thing in mind: How can we forge a memorably positive emotional connection with customers and consistently deliver a consistently delightful, empathy-driven experience? Here are three ways to get there.
STEPS TO EMPATHY-DRIVEN CUSTOMER EXPERIENCE
1. Make customer empathy the company’s central cultural value.
Many businesses still operate in silos, but, as described above, customers no longer do. Thus, companies need to shed old ways of how the business has been structured and organized and adopt new ones based solely on how customers see and work with them. Everyone on every team in every department must have a clear understanding of their role in providing a holistic, empathy-driven experience and how each channel and touchpoint integrates to make that happen.
As part of the effort to cultivate human experience as a core value, every individual in the company should be able to see, hear, and feel the customers’ experience—not just a select few whose “job” it is.
Finally, companies must ask themselves if they have the right leaders for this time. Does the CEO grasp where to prioritize investments to drive the experiences customers are demanding? Do executives across the C-suite have the right levels of empathy, authenticity, and emotional intelligence? In today’s world, leaders must make decisions with their hearts as much as their heads. “Soft skills” are the new hard skills.
2. Focus on human experience as much as data.
Understanding customers on a deeper level—who they are, what their lives are like, and what their motivations are for using a product or service—has become harder as customer experiences have become less human and more digital. Companies are trying to build deep connections with perhaps millions of people they may never actually see.
As a result, most businesses have turned to collecting and analyzing data—clicks, sales conversion statistics, email response rates, survey responses, etc.—to try to glean customer insights.
But while quantitative methods can help uncover trends and patterns, (for example, that 65 percent of web page visitors are leaving without going beyond the home page) they tell only half the story: Data can provide the “what” behind customer behavior but not the “why.” It is devoid of color and context—the many nuances around customer experience that can come only from observing and interacting with customers first-hand.
Interaction with real customers must be combined with companies’ data-centric processes to inform every aspect of product design, creation, and support.
3. Take advantage of technology.
Technology exists—video, live interviews, and other research studies—to continually see and hear what customers are thinking. Companies should leverage this technology to build a feedback loop that drives the brand forward from the customer’s viewpoint—a virtuous circle in which one desirable outcome from human insights leads to another and drives continuous improvement.
In a product or app launch, for example, this can include live customer interviews before design starts, quick validation of prototypes and sketches, continuous verification during development to validate decisions and reveal problem areas, and post-launch gathering of insights to reveal any issues that weren’t found earlier.
By following these three steps, businesses can make customer empathy part of their brand’s lifeblood. In these times, there may be no greater differentiator.