A dentist works on a patient's teeth.

How the ADA Empowered C-Suite Leaders to Gain Customer Empathy

6 minute read
Dom Nicastro avatar
Catching up with Stephanie Moritz to discuss how the American Dental Association (ADA) helped empower C-Suite leaders to buy into customer experience.

Only 52 companies have remained on the Fortune 500 list since 1955. And there are not too many carryovers on that list from the year 2000, either. 

The primary reason is because there is no good model for digital change, according to Dion Hinchcliffe, vice president and principal analyst at Constellation Research. "The senior management teams in most organizations are really good at running the business the way that it is today, and especially how it was years ago," Hinchcliffe said in a recent interview with CMSWire at the DX Summit 2019. "They're kind of perpetuating the problem in that they don't have the skills or the talent, because they didn't come up in the digital world. They're experts at whatever that is: retail, pharmacy, manufacturing, finance, insurance. They're good at that."

Too many brands, however, try to force senior leaders to hop on the digital transformation change, but they lack experience. They can't support digital transformation. They can't build great models. "There is this big disconnect ... ," Hinchcliffe said, "which is why one of the success factors now is to have someone on the board that is digitally proficient."

Pull C-Suite Leaders Into the Experience — Literally

Stephanie Moritz, chief communications and marketing officer for the American Dental Association (ADA), knows these challenges well. How can you get senior leaders on board with change, especially of the digital variety? How do you get senior leaders comfortable with being uncomfortable? How do you pique their curiosity about the way customers go through experiences with your brand?

These are questions Moritz contends with every day. One of her most successful strategies for better c-suite engagement with digital transformation and customer experience? Getting those leaders in the customer's shoes. Living experiences, and thinking about designing experiences. Imagine, c-suite leaders stepping into the customer journey, literally, with the goal of gaining empathy and helping their company craft better customer experiences. 

That's what the ADA c-suite leaders have done. They took two days out of the office and literally experienced what the design thinking process is all about. "They went through and lived each and every step," Moritz told CMSWire. "You can't just design the experience. You actually need to go through the experience. It gave us common language. It gave us a common experience to pull from, a knowledge that we were all able to use. That's different than just a buzzword. That's getting out there and living it and then really harnessing it into your corporate culture."

It's played a big role in helping the ADA increase the number of net new members and foster the implementation of design thinking in addition to aiding marketing practices like insights and data-driven campaigns, content strategy and engaging storytelling.

Related Article: Design Thinking Starts With Empathy for Customer Needs

Watching, Observing, Listening to the Customer

At the team's world dental offices, C-Suite leaders met up with those who deploy experiences for the ADA. They watched, witnessed and absorbed, according to Moritz. "What's happening? What are they saying? What are they doing? What do we think they're feeling? Where are they spending most of their time?" Moritz said. "What are those those small actions and interactions? And what are the biggest opportunities as well as the commonalities?" 

For the ADA, it was all about getting out there and doing that work, and then coming back and talking through insights. "What did you see? How does this apply to your business?" Moritz said. "So it truly took it full circle." 

Learning Opportunities

It also began an ongoing feedback loop between customer-focused panels, board members, communities and other stakeholders because, as Moritz puts it, "that ongoing feedback loop is just absolutely critical. The way one person practices, may not be the way another person practices."

Creating Believers at the Top

Was it easy pulling C-Suite leaders out of their day jobs? Of course not, Moritz said. "It was a bit of a challenge, hearing that you need to take on a customer experience and design thinking roll," Moritz said. "Put your day-to-day job over here, put your CFO job here, your CEO job here, and really take on a new job for the next two days. It was uncomfortable for some, but part of this is getting comfortable with being uncomfortable."

Leaders may have questioned the commitment, but stepping into the customer's shoes changed their mindsets quickly. What about that? Did you see this? Should we move this way? C-suite leaders showed passion for how the customer interacts with their brand, Moritz said. They're now testing and being more iterative. "It created believers," she said. "They needed to experience it before they could believe and see how it could impact the business. A lot of it is detective work. You are there and you're observing and you're watching and you're looking for those hidden cues, and it's a puzzle. It's a puzzle that you are trying to figure out, because you have so many choices of how you can show up, or what you can create. So that's part of the fun and the art and the science of it." 

Related Article: Your Customer Experiences Won't Shine Without Empathy

Relentless Pursuit of Questions and Curiosity

The first step in a journey like this is to be curious, and to truly have the "relentless pursuit of questions and curiosity," according to Moritz. "So, in part, it's really shifting the corporate culture from one that is rewarded for having all of the answers to one that actually rewards curiosity and innovation." 

Part of that vulnerability, she said, is talking about what works, talking about failures and having open, real conversations about the pivots that you're truly making. Leaders, having lived through their brand's customer experiences, are constantly questioning things. What did the design thinking tell us? What did the research say? "We really need to know the customer," Moritz said. "We need to have that empathy. We need to have walked in their shoes and look at things from a completely different perspective. It changes the lens that allows for the curiosity and the innovation."

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