conversation
PHOTO: Korney Violin

Eighty-six percent. That’s the proportion of people who are willing to pay more for a great customer experience — 86%. Now couple that with data that shows 59% of today's customers say that customer experience has a significant impact on purchase as compared with only 38% pre-COVID, and it seems clear that customer experience is more important than ever before. With most big brands already competing on customer experience, outlying brands can’t wait to reevaluate the processes and tactics that contribute to their overall customer experience. 

As I consider the customer experiences I've had in 2020, most would be forgettable. But one comes to mind as exceptional for the way empathy and emotion made my interaction with the brand seamless and pain-free. This was a vehicle purchase that involved research, price negotiations and traveling to a physically distant location during a pandemic to test-drive, purchase and retrieve it. What made the experience so great? The communication was timely, clear and hassle-free. The dealership understood the time commitments involved in the travel, and they were empathetic to scheduling needs. From an emotional perspective, they were able to transition from informative to understanding to delightful as our customer journey progressed. The purchase process concluded with a sense of excitement. My family and I have since spoken highly of this brand and the interaction — and we all know word of mouth is truly the best form of advertising.

So how can customer experiences become more emotion- and empathy-driven?

Why Customer Experience Needs Emotion and Empathy

Why now? It used to be that brands considered emotion and empathy only when addressing a customer’s “moment of truth,” that do-or-die time that can make or break a customer’s loyalty. The lost plane or event ticket, the locked bank account, the stolen credit card — these are times when brands must resolve a stressful customer situation.

But empathy is often missing outside these moments of truth. Today, as customers face unrelenting stress from social, fiscal and political fronts, the last thing they want to do is navigate a brand that delivers a mediocre or poor customer experience. They want simple, comprehensible, easy experiences.

Let’s go back to my purchase example. The people at the auto dealer were empathetic to my situation. They understood I couldn’t travel until the end of the work week, and they were understanding of the distance, financial and health restrictions in place. They understood how interacting with them made me feel. That’s empathy.

Related Article: Design Thinking Starts With Empathy for Customer Needs

How Do Brands Empathize?

How do you incorporate authentic empathy and emotion? The focus should be on two main things.

First, brands must ensure that their customer’s experience is a holistic process — meaning every department is not only involved in contributing, but also understands the implications of their engagement to their upstream and downstream departmental counterparts. If a brand changes their marketing communications to be more empathetic but doesn’t alter how the service and support organization or finance department treats its customer, then it is missing the opportunity as well as the point. Empathy must be woven throughout the entire customer experience, beginning to end. 

Second, brands must have the right technology in place to help them treat the customer experience holistically. The dealership in my purchase experience used several such technology examples. Automated analysis of the sentiment of text messages and call audio allowed the CX specialist to understand my mood and emotion during initial negotiation. Seamless handoff from the corporate to local dealership then occurred via tight software and messaging system integrations. It was so seamless that I was under the impression that everyone I engaged with was at the local dealership. Finally, once I arrived at the dealership, operational and analytical CRM systems were used in conjunction to understand and analyze past brand interactions, purchase and contact history, and provide product recommendations (warranty packages and extra dealer coverages) to deliver via next best offer/action technologies. The customer experience I received would not have been as exceptional without these technology enablers in place.

To have a holistic, technology-enabled customer experience process, leaders from each department of the organization must come together to map the customer journey — different customer paths and handoffs, identify where issues could or do occur, implement and test process solutions, and then measure the improvement.

Related Article: In Customer Experience, Accidents Happen in the Intersections

Making Customers Feel Valued

What are the results of incorporating empathy and emotion into the customer experience? The quantitative and short answer is a widespread improvement, in both customer satisfaction and bottom-line business metrics like conversion, loyalty and margin. But I think that the qualitative answer is more important here, one reminiscent of a popular saying: “People may forget what you said or did, but they always remember how you made them feel.”

Feeling valued and understood as a customer is important, and businesses that do it best keep communication to customers open, carefully address issues and respect customer boundaries. One of the most enjoyable parts of my vehicle purchase experience was that I was gently “pulled” or “led” toward an outcome versus being “pushed” or “forced” down a path.

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s time to revisit how we can be more empathic and understanding. The most advanced brands from a CX perspective are weaving it throughout the brand to consumer experience, from initial interaction to well beyond purchase. Seeing possible solutions from the eyes of the customer in 2021 — instilling empathy and emotion into experience — will never go out of style.