I often talk about how important empathy is, but I realised the other day that I was using it in two different ways:
1) Empathy as a tool to inform the design of customer experiences
2) Building empathy at the front line as an essential output of insight
Let’s look at both of those in a bit more detail.
Empathy for design
To design good experiences you need to blend a deep understanding of customers with the skills, informed by psychology, to shape the way they feel. Getting that understanding requires in-depth qualitative research to get inside the heads of individual customers, helping you to see the world the way they see it.
When you understand why people behave the way they do, think the way they think, and (most importantly) feel they way they feel, you can design experiences that deliver the feelings you want to create in customers.
Design, to quote from Jon Kolko’s excellent book Well Designed is…
“…a creative process built on a platform of empathy.”
Empathy is a tool you can use to design better experiences.
Empathy at the front line
Improving the customer experience sometimes means making systematic changes to products or processes, but more often it’s a question of changing (or improving the consistency of) decision making at the front line.
Those decisions are driven by two things: your culture (or “service climate”), and the extent to which your people understand customers. If you can help your people empathise with customers, to understand why they’re acting, thinking, and feeling the way they are, then they’re much more likely to make good decisions for customers.
I’m sure we can all think of a topical example of what it looks like when front line staff are totally lacking in empathy.
The best way to build empathy is to bring customers to life with storytelling research communication. Using real customer stories, hearing their voices, seeing their faces, is much more powerful than abstract communication about mean scores and percentages.
Empathy at the front line is necessary to support good decisions.
Two kinds of empathy?
Are these two types of empathy fundamentally different? Not really. The truth is we are all experience designers. The decisions we make, whether grounded in empathy for the customer or making life easy for ourselves, collectively create the customer experience.
You can draw up a vision for the customer journey of the future, grounded in a deep understanding of customers, but if you fail to engage your colleagues at the front line it will never make a difference to customers.
To design effective experiences you need to start by gaining empathy for customers, but you also need to build empathy throughout your organisation.