walking and talking
Empathy means little if there's no action taken to back it up PHOTO: Josefin Brosche Hagsgård

Veteran business software vendors like SAP are now keen to talk up the empathy they have for their customers — and that comes as no surprise. As more and more organizations choose a product subscription over a one-time purchase, vendors are coming under increasing pressure to win and retain customer loyalty not once but over and over again.

Ask companies what they like most about a cloud apps startup they’ve signed up with, and they will likely highlight the close working relationship and high level of trust they enjoy with that vendor. 

The challenge for both that cloud startup and its more established rivals is to how to offer that kind of vendor/customer partnership at scale so that every single customer always feels heard and appreciated.

At the same time, within any organization, developing and growing empathy can be a way to break down longstanding departmental logjams and set the foundation for improved collaboration.

Becoming Empathetic

Empathy is a much larger commitment than a simple one-time listening exercise with customers or colleagues. Empathy is effectively an ongoing two-fold promise to first gain a real appreciation of someone else’s pain points and then to act to alleviate those issues.

In order to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, you have to really listen to their concerns and process what they struggle with, which may be hard to hear.

For instance, as a vendor, you may believe your product pricing is clear and your website is easy to navigate, but have you ever really tried to do business with yourself? Try it out by playing the roles of a sales prospect and of an existing customer looking to purchase your products. Not so easy, is it?

Bear in mind the unpredictability of the buyer’s journey today, which more closely resembles a tornado than an orderly, largely vendor-led progression through a funnel. The customer is in the driving seat, not the vendor.

Incentivizing Empathy

That said, the first touch a vendor has with a potential customer still comes through its sales team. The move away from software purchase to subscription has meant the role of sales has transitioned from ending at the sale to more often than not lasting the entire lifecycle of the customer relationship.

Vendors need to ensure they reward their sales teams for their day-to-day work keeping customers happy, for instance, establishing and then incentivizing levels of customer responsiveness, as well as for all the sales teams' up-sell and cross-sell endeavors.

Laying the Groundwork

With your sales people supporting ongoing customer happiness, your next step is to sit down with your customer and have them walk you through their experiences with your software and your organization. Find out what’s currently involved for them in renewing, canceling and general management of their licensing relationship with you, the vendor, as well as how they rate the responsiveness of your communications channels.

In the context of an organization, laying the groundwork for empathy may begin with the creation of a new cross-functional project team made up of stakeholders from different internal departments. Hold an informal social gathering where the team can get to know each other as individuals first rather than by their company roles. The focus is all about what the group has in common rather than their differences.

Once the group is established, each member can present the day-to-day problems they face and hope to overcome using as illustration some metrics and software screenshots. The more each team member understands about their colleagues’ pain points, the more everyone can work together to try and resolve all issues.

Set Clear Expectations

Once the initial listening phase is complete, the next stage is responding to everything you’ve heard. Each side should be prepared to be vulnerable and to own past and current failings. A vendor may admit to complex pricing and lack of software testing, while a customer may concede over-customization and scope creep.

Should sizable gaps still remain between how individuals or groups see the prior and current relationship, there’s clearly a need to continue to engage in much more frank discussion.

The goal is a strong appreciation and understanding of everyone’s position including the vendor’s, for instance, the reasons why you’re investing in one area of functionality rather than another, which a customer may need.

Next up is setting clear, realistic expectations and timing for what the customer or your colleagues should anticipate happening next. So, moving from “We feel your pain” to, “This is what we’re going to do to help cure that pain.”

This is the crucial part about empathy where organizations can and often do drop the ball — which ultimately exacerbates the original customer or colleague unhappiness.

For instance, take the practice of employee surveys. As employee engagement expert Jill Christensen recently told CMSWire, “When you conduct an employee engagement survey and then don’t do anything with the results, it’s just further disengaging,” adding, “If you’re not going to act on it, then don’t do the survey.”

Be Transparent

Empathy requires transparency. If you committed to taking actions on particular dates, you need to be able to communicate to your customers or your colleagues that you did indeed deliver on those deadlines. If you didn’t deliver, you need to provide reasons why you’ve not done so and when you will meet those commitments. 

After all, talking about empathy means little if nothing ultimately changes.

So if your vendor or colleagues are talking up their empathy endeavors, first get them to clarify exactly what they mean and what they plan to provide. Once you understand what’s on offer, then track what’s delivered when and whether what’s provided matches up with the original empathy promises.

Think about establishing some kind of happiness index or timeline which plots your contentment with a vendor or within your organization against their promises and deliveries. Everything you discover will help you determine whether your empathetic partner is one you want to retain or one with whom you’re ready to part ways.