Empathy has often been seen as a ‘soft’ subject, even perhaps regarded as somewhat of a hindrance in business terms, as brands compete against each other for an increasingly demanding customer base. However, as The Six Pillars of our Customer Experience Excellence Centre demonstrate, a company that can develop its capacity for empathy is very likely to reap very real dividends. Furthermore, this article will explore how the rapid rise of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation will mean that a brand’s ability to empathise with both its customers and employees will become an increasingly valuable facet of customer experience design.

In recent years, the rise of AI and automation has meant that a number of traditional jobs within all industries have disappeared. In the world of customer experience this has meant less-skilled administrative tasks such as data entry and filing have gone, whilst the presence of smart phones and microchips have enabled the service user to order a pizza or book a taxi with the push of a button rather than speaking to a company employee. As more and more of these manual tasks disappear, the rise of soft skills such as ‘creativity’, ‘empathy’ and ‘leadership’ will come to the fore as brands look to optimise the new spaces that emerge for both their service proposition and their employees as a result of AI’s continuing efficiencies.

So why is empathy important?

Empathy allows us to see other people’s points of view. In customer experience design, this can mean pre-empting service user’s needs and desires and taking care of them before they reach a potential “pain point” in their customer journey. When businesses speak about building ‘brand loyalty’ and ‘brand relationships’, it is empathy that remains a key factor to making these objectives achievable. It is no surprise that the company USAA ranked 1st overall in our 2016 US Customer Experience Excellence Centre analysis as well as scoring the highest in their ability to empathise.

Turning soft skills into practical action

So how does empathy translate into actionable insights? If empathy is a way of appreciating how other people feel then this can act as a means to provoking innovation, transforming average customer experiences in to great ones. In the documentary film ‘Objectified’, designers discuss how that if you design products for ‘extreme users’ then ‘average users’ will always be able to use them, however if you design for ‘average users’ then you risk alienating ‘extreme users’. This works in exactly the same way in customer experience design. Standing in a queue at a bank may not be an issue for a young able-bodied person but could cause great discomfort and distress for those customers who are older or disabled. Providing seating or innovating a ticketing system to bring cashiers to these service users is unlikely to be forgotten by them especially if compared favourably to other customer experiences. This provides a good example of empathy provoking innovation provoking brand loyalty, and thereby underlines its importance to customer experience design.

How can empathy be developed?

There is an argument as to whether soft skills such as empathy and creativity can ever really be trained or developed. That is why it may be the case that companies may be better off hiring for attitude first and then training for skills. Saying that, there are a number of actions that can be taken to develop empathetic ability:

  1. Cultivating curiosity – a key aspect of empathy is cultivating curiosity in other people’s lives. This can be achieved simply by listening to what other people have to say and highlights the importance of gathering insights from the wide range of different people who will often be using a product or service. Cultivating curiosity doesn’t need to be a formalised process but can also be simply developed from exposure to books, films and magazines and a working environment that encourages communication and creativity. Many start-up companies now even actively encourage innovations such as allowing pets within office environments in an attempt to build empathy and morale among their employees.
  2. Step into the shoes of others – The product designer Patricia Moore went to great lengths to harness and utilise empathy in the development of her products. Whilst aged 26 she dressed up as an 85 year old woman to discover what life was like for the elderly. This included wrapping her limbs with splints and bandages to simulate arthritis as well as wearing uneven shoes to produce an awkward hobble. This allowed her to develop such products as potato peelers with thick rubber handles and other utensils which are now used commonly in kitchens. The popular television show “Undercover Boss” took a similar premise in which high-level executives would enter their own companies at entry-level positions in a bid to discover flaws within the company.
  3. Taking ownership – A great way of demonstrating empathy is to really show that you are listening and this often means taking ownership of a customer/service user’s problem or complaint. This requires service providers/ companies to have systems in place where they can proactively react and resolve at all levels, and that their employees are empowered to act autonomously without the need for consulting with management or passing complex problems on to other departments.

All these examples serve to demonstrate that the ability to empathise remains a very real skill that can produce tangible insights and results for those willing to cultivate and encourage it in the working environment and customer experiences. The rise of automation and AI has both increased the potential to bring empathetic insights into customer experience design as well as putting serious pressure on those brands who fail to do so at the risk of becoming outdated and left behind.