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Understanding The Role of Empathy in Customer Experience

Published September 25, 2013

If you haven’t read the 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow, I’d suggest you do. Author and 2002 Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman is known worldwide for his work on the psychology of decision making and behavioral economics, among other areas.


His work provides insights into one of the (if not the) most important concepts for anyone involved in or concerned with customer experience management. The concept is empathy. While we intuitively understand why this is important, Mr. Kahneman nails it: “We are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.”

It’s pretty simple in theory: If you want to nail customer experience, you need to understand how your experiences make people feel. And you need to make sure that they make your customers feel good. Empathy – defined as “identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives” – is key when it comes to delivering a great customer experience.

Those companies that “get it” take the time to understand their customers and make a concerted effort to apply these insights to every aspect of their business, ranging from new product development and call center training to the retail environment.

Empathy in Healthcare? Uh, Yeah…

We’ll start with an easy one. Research completed at Massachusetts General Hospital and published in the Journal of Internal Medicine in 2012, revealed that empathy in healthcare settings was essential to the formation of strong patient-physician relationships as well as positive patient outcomes and overall satisfaction with the experience.

As the study highlights, when healthcare providers take the initiative to ensure that one of their most important touchpoints—physician interactions with patients—takes empathy into account, they can make a stronger impression and receive higher overall scores from patients.

This isn’t a surprise to anyone who’s every dealt with a doctor. The difference in how we feel about an imperious know-it-all vs. that person who asks how we feel—and listens—is massive. Healthcare situations are rarely thought to be “enjoyable”. But to the degree any interaction can be, it’s empathy that drives this desired response.

And while it may seem obvious that empathy is critical in the healthcare setting, that doesn’t mean it’s any less important in other industries.

Empathy in Technology Sales? Come on…

It sounds silly – until you think about how you feel when your computer/smart phone/iPad loses your key data just as you’re about to save it or crashes just as you settle down to watch a rented movie, much less before an important presentation.

You want someone to listen. You want them to fix your problem sure – but you also want them to acknowledge your distress. Apple gets this. Their ability to know and care about what customers want, and then deliver on those wants, has given them a nearly spotless reputation. This desire to acknowledge and connect with their customers is evident in many aspects of their business.

For example, the company’s Genius Bar employees, who provide Apple users with the device support they need in retail locations are trained to listen to their customers (the Apple Genius Training Manual includes a basic guide to empathy) and are taught to use certain phrases and monitor a customer’s body language when on the sales floor. This allows them to tailor their interactions to an individual’s specific needs, boosting customer perception that the company cares about their individual situation.

Having Trouble Delivering Empathy In Your Customer Experiences? Uh Oh.

Customers who feel a company isn’t empathetic to their needs may take their business elsewhere, hitting a company where it hurts—its bottom line. Didn’t think a lack of empathy had an impact on sales? Surprise. You’re missing out on the opportunity to better connect with your customers and earn more of their business.

There are several studies that back up the fact that no matter who your customers are (B2B or B2C), there’s a high price to pay for delivering a poor customer experience. The thing is, customer experience is really based on how your customers feel. And one of the best ways to make them feel better about the experience is to listen them, understand their concerns, and deliver empathetic service across multiple touchpoints.

As Mr. Kahneman also said, “The effort invested in ‘getting it right’ should be commensurate with the importance of the decision.” Or, in this case, the importance of our customers-without whom none of us would be in business. Bottom line, it’s time start recognizing and understanding your customers’ wants and needs.

Because if you don’t?

Then, to quote Apple’s training manual, “I can appreciate how you (are going to) feel…” Because it’s gonna hurt – your bottom line.

This blog originally ran on CMO.com, where Michael Hinshaw writes the weekly “Get Customer-Centric” blog.


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