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The missing heart of customer-centricity

girl lying on grass making heart with hands

Think back to the moment Trump got elected for President. 

In a nutshell

  1. Customer-centricity is a response to people demanding more from the brands they use and interact with.
  2. Empathy goes hand in hand with customer-centricity, and in this respect many brands are failing.
  3. People are labelled as 'consumers', 'claimants', a 'low value contract', a 'lapsed buyer', a 'target upsell', or a 'budget shopper'. This language has an impact on the internal culture of companies and the way employees behave towards each other and toward customers.
  4. Internal company culture translates directly into how people experience a brand. In a culture where prescriptive scripts, checklists and targets are the tools, and sticks and carrots are used to drive scores, it's unlikely a spirit of empathy will thrive.

During the reflective period that followed, the world was asking itself who the people were that voted for him – almost half of the US population, similar to the numbers in the Brexit vote. Why didn’t we know these people and how they were feeling?

As marketers, advertisers and insights professionals, we’re supposed to be in touch – it’s our job to know people. Why then did the results of the presidential election come as such a surprise to many?

But we’ve learned our lesson, right? We are aware that Trump’s message resonates with a large portion of the population, we recognise their pain and understand how they feel – we empathise. More importantly, we understand that fifty percent of our customers and staff share the same views.

It’s inevitable that people hold differing views on everything, not just politics – smoking, alcohol consumption, education, public healthcare, traffic. But to be able to connect, we must empathise. That’s not the same as agreeing with the other person’s opinions, but it is about respecting people’s right to their views and seeking to understand the underlying aspects of their lives that cause them to think the way they do.

The hunt is now on for the skeletons in Trump’s closet that could lead to his impeachment. It makes for lively discussion, but in none of the conversations is anyone asking how those who voted for Trump will feel if he is brought down by the very powers that they voted against.

Imagine how disenfranchised and powerless people will feel – people who grabbed the chance to vote for someone who they believed could shake things up and recognise that life for them was getting worse – if the establishment brings him down before he has achieved what he promised.

But I’m not hearing these concerns being voiced. Was our empathy so short lived? I suspect not. I suspect it was never truly authentic because there was an essential lack of curiosity. Yes, it was a harsh realisation for some that they misread a large portion of the population. Many marketers reflected on whether they were suffering from the same blind spot about their customers. But look how quickly we’ve lapsed back to an inward looking perspective on customer-centricity.

Customer-centricity without empathy is a hollow vessel

The term ‘customer-centricity’ signals a cultural shift in how brands approach customer interactions, largely in response to people’s changing expectations. We’ve seen the marketing world change its perspective as it moves away from traditional customer service (dominated by wishes to “have a nice day”) and into an all-encompassing brand experience.

Customer-centricity is a response to people demanding more from the brands they use and interact with. There’s been a wave of thought recently that the Western world has reached “peak stuff” and amidst the chaos of a saturated market, brands need to provide a rewarding experience and an empathetic service to their customers if they want to stand out.

But empathy goes hand in hand with customer-centricity, and in this respect many brands are failing. To be customer-centric (read, human-centric) we must truly understand who our customers are, and we can only do that by being genuinely curious. This needs to go deeper than surface level demographics and into the nature of their lives – what motivates them, what brings them joy, what troubles keep them up at night, what role do our products play in their lives. If it’s a minor or a major role, does the brand act accordingly? More often than not brands neglect to make this deep connection.

"Empathy goes hand in hand with customer-centricity, and in this respect many brands are failing."

‘Them and us’ is not an option for customer-centric companies

This lack of empathy and understanding is at the heart of why so many companies fail to achieve their goal of being customer-centric – they may shift their intention, but not their orientation. They leave their customers on the outside of the business, and they retain a ‘them and us’ mentality.

Brand teams often fail to be genuinely curious about their customers. They see customers’ needs as obstacles along a journey map that have to be appeased or pandered to. They create strategies to meet these needs at various touch points along the company’s operationally structured journey.

People are labelled and referred to as consumers as though that’s all they do – forgetting their busy and complex lives away from their purchasing decisions. They are treated as a ‘claimant’, a ‘low value contract’, a ‘poor credit rating customer’, a ‘lapsed buyer’, a ‘target upsell’, a ‘budget shopper’ or an ‘HVC’.

While perhaps operationally effective, this type of language has an impact on the internal culture of companies and the way employees behave towards each other and toward customers. Perhaps even the term ‘customer-centric’ is part of the problem – it doesn’t suggest empathy, curiosity or interest. Instead it feels more like a business goal, focusing on customers as something the company can extract maximum value from. It’s like bringing the customer into the heart of the business but forgetting about the heart bit – the genuine care.

Personas are a common mechanism these days for bringing customers to life in a business. But a persona that is a cardboard stereotype that directs staff to apply specific sales or customer enquiry strategies simply reinforces the separation of the business from the real lives of its customers.

Company culture and employee experience determine customer experience

"In a culture where prescriptive scripts, checklists and targets are the tools, and sticks and carrots are used to drive scores, it’s unlikely a spirit of empathy will thrive."

Internal company culture translates directly into how people experience a brand, especially in service industries. In a culture where prescriptive scripts, checklists and targets are the tools, and sticks and carrots are used to drive scores, it’s unlikely a spirit of empathy will thrive. Nor is there any room for curiosity and interest. Ultimately, this has a negative effect on the overall brand experience.

I read an article recently about how an elderly man in an airline’s economy class was denied a glass of water by the stewardess because “we don’t serve drinks in economy until after take-off”. Meanwhile she was serving champagne to business class passengers just one row in front of him. One of the business class passengers left his seat and got a glass of water from the galley, unabashed by the glare of the stewardess, and handed it to the elderly gentleman to be received by claps and cheers from nearby passengers. There was clearly more empathy customer-to-customer (or human-to-human) than there was company-to-customer. And I would bet that the airline claims to have a customer-centric strategy.

This is a prime example of where a little bit of empathy and genuine care on the part of the company would go a long way. Companies that demonstrate empathy internally and externally earn trust, and that’s a rare commodity these days with global measures of trust plummeting. Brands need to be thinking about what they can do to make people feel better and address their problems – with genuine care (because fake authenticity is obvious from a mile away).

There’s a common misconception in the industry that a customer-centric approach is simply about looking at your touch points and seeing how you can improve them for your customers. It is more than that – to put the heart into customer-centricity requires a total paradigm shift that can only be achieved by truly, genuinely walking in the customer’s shoes, and looking at how you can improve the total experience (not just a part of it). Only then will customers feel the humanity in the company’s empathy toward them.

Colleen Ryan
Partner at TRA

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