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Many of us know the “Golden Rule” -- treat others the way we want to be treated. It’s a philosophy that helps us better relate to one another and to understand how our actions impact those around us. Although the intentions of the “Golden Rule” are noble, this approach carries with it one fatal assumption: that how we would prefer to be treated is how others would also prefer to be treated. For the sake of your customers, let’s propose an upgrade to the “Platinum Rule.”

The “Platinum Rule” deviates from the “Golden Rule” on one important point. Under the “Platinum Rule” we do not assume that our personal needs accurately represent the complex needs of our customer base. Instead, the “Platinum Rule” urges us to treat others the way they want to be treated.

Drop Your Assumptions At the Door

Whether we realize it or not, we enter situations with preconceptions based on our own personal experience. But making assumptions when interacting with customers is dangerous, because it can lead to solutions that aren’t a match or are simply flawed, which puts the customer relationship at risk. While we may believe we know a lot about them, in truth, the mind of the customer is more complex than we could ever comprehend.

In an attempt to avoid these assumptions, many businesses rally around the idea of “customer empathy” -- putting themselves in their customers shoes. We seek to gain better insight into their motives, feelings and actions. While empathy is an important first step to a company better understanding its customers, it does not crack the code of the customer mind.

Empathy should be viewed as an awakening. In order for it to succeed, it needs to be paired with a strong understanding of cold hard facts.

Numbers, Numbers, Numbers

When it comes to customer service, no two customers are the same. But businesses rarely have time to speak with each individual customer before making a strategic decision, so it’s unrealistic to ask everyone how they’d prefer situations to be handled. There is simply too much variance to account for every preference and opinion. Using aggregate data instead helps identify some common preferences and traits customers share.

Businesses typically have a sea of data available to them, but the most useful information comes from documented business changes and the resulting customer activity. We can’t always confirm exactly what our customers are thinking, but we can confirm which changes have altered (or will alter) consumer behavior using historical data. These could be past price changes to a product or old customer support queries after a platform upgrade. Anything that shows a cause and effect relationship can help us understand how our customers have reacted to changes, so that we can make more informed decisions in the future.

Few things speak louder than data in the decision making process. It helps to cut through the bias and insert logic and reason into the equation. It’s also an amazing counterbalance when exercising empathy. While empathy can provide us with a hunch, data can help ensure it checks out.

Above All Else, Ask!

While empathy helps familiarize us with customer perspectives and data helps us to rationalize these perspectives, there is one thing that brings businesses closest to understanding what customers want: asking them.

Things like polling your customer base before or after big changes, providing a comments section after a support ticket is closed, or beta testing a new platform or product to a diverse subset of customers are great ways to garner feedback. Create a feedback loop for your customers -- the insight you gain from it can be invaluable when trying to understand customer behavior and psychology.

Even with all this information, we’ll never understand everything about our customers. Customers are complex and their needs tend to be fluid. We won’t make the right decision every time, and we won’t always understand how these decisions impact our customers. However, what is most important is that we make an effort and recognize that our customers deserve to be treated as they’d prefer.​

Title image by Dan (Flickr) via a CC BY-ND 2.0 license