Empathy — The Heart of Customer-Centric Innovation
McKinsey declares, "new digital upstarts are threatening the bottom lines, growth prospects, and even business models of traditional service providers. It's time for the incumbents to innovate — or be left behind. (McKinsey Insights & Publications, "Service Innovation in a Digital World", February 2015) McKinsey presents their case for three customer-driven innovation imperatives that must be approached with the same rigor, enthusiasm and intensity as product companies bring to R&D:
- Institutionalize service innovation
- Personalize the customer experience
- Simplify service delivery
In the same McKinsey publication, Citrix's Senior Vice President, Customer Experience, emphatically states that the key to customer-centric innovation requires"...developing deep empathy for customers and creating solutions that will match their needs — as opposed to just dreaming up and delivering technology for technology's sake. " ("Applying Design Thinking Across the Business: An Interview with Citrix's Catherine Courage")
Breaking Information Technology's bad habit of assuming what's best for their customers can't happen quickly enough. We must invest the time in empathetically eliciting and aligning on our customers' needs. While changing this paradigm is no easy feat, it is achievable.
Dr. Daniel Goleman, globally renowned psychologist, lecturer, behavioral science specialist and Emotional Intelligence author, tells us that there are three types of empathy:
- Cognitive empathy — the ability to see the world through others' eyes including how to best communicate with others by learning what matters most to them, their models of the world, and what words to use or avoid in talking with them.
- Emotional empathy — the ability to feel what the other person feels in a body-to-body connection plus mirroring those feelings, which is aided by observing and assessing their moment-to-moment facial, vocal and a stream of other nonverbal signs.
- Empathetic concern — the ability to genuinely care about the other person through a heart-to-heart connection, including when leaders convey and stand behind their trust in and support of others, thereby encouraging others to take risks rather than maintain a too-safe defensive posture.
Per Dr. Goleman, "A prerequisite to empathy is simply paying attention to the person in pain", which leads us to the next question — can empathy be learned?
Can Empathy Be Learned?
The short answer is "YES"! A randomized controlled trial to test the results of Dr. Helen Riess' empathy trainingand emotional intelligence education showed statistically significant improvements in satisfaction among patients treated by residents who had participated in her Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) program. According to Dr. Helen Riess, Director of MGH's Empathy and Relational Science Program, "Many people think that empathy is either something you are born with, that you either have it or you don't. The exciting news from all of our research is that empathy seems to be a mutable trait. Certain conditions can blunt expressions of empathy and, conversely, certain awareness-building and reflection activities seem to be able to up-regulate empathetic behavior."
Caution - Roadblocks Ahead!
While the evidence supports that we can all develop empathetic capabilities, some of us aren't stepping up. We're:
- Not paying attention to others. Said another way, we're intentionally choosing to not pay attention. We're allowing ourselves to become distracted by our own thoughts, environmental diversions or multi-tasking to a degree where we're not even listening to the other person.
- Not feeling the same emotions as the other person, so we don't know how to respond even though we intellectually know that we need to communicate empathy.
- Feeling the emotions of the other person, but we don't know how to respond.
- Not genuinely caring about others to a degree where being empathetic is a priority.
Where Do We Begin?
How we go about building out our empathetic capabilities is a complex topic that involves self-awareness, introspection, proven techniques, third party feedback plus a TON of practice. The below tips are intended to get you started in the right direction.
Step 1 — active listening
Please refer to Forget Innovation if We're Not Actively Listening for helpful active listening tips and techniques.
Step 2 — empathetic listening and processing
As we actively listen, we must use all of our senses to not only hear what's being said, but to hone in on the tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and word choice. When we get really good at this, we're able to pick up on unspoken clues. Those clues allow us to ask probing questions that get at the heart of what the other person is thinking and feeling. Don't guess — get data! We must also concurrently encourage conversation continuation, keep track of discussion points and capture plus verify key messages.
Step 3 — empathetic reflecting and responding
OK, here's the step that separates the active listening rookies from the empathy masters! After listening and processing, pause and think about a situation that you've personally experienced that is either directly or even remotely analogous to the other person's situation and what he or she is thinking or feeling (based on what they told you — again, don't guess what they're thinking or how they're feeling). Ask yourself these key questions:
- Can I identify an analogous situation?
- How did I feel during that particular situation? Hint: go to that place and allow yourself to briefly relive that "feeling".
- Revisiting how I once felt, can I now more fully appreciate how the other person is feeling?
Now the even trickier part — what should I say to the other person to emotionally connect with them? While the world of responses is immense, you might start your reply with one of the following:
- Response A: Having experienced something similar, I genuinely appreciate your point of view.
- Response B: While my perspective may be different, I can certainly understand your point of view.
Response A works in situations where you truly "get" why the person is thinking and feeling a certain way. Response B works in situations where you believe that their thoughts and feelings don't necessarily "fit" the situation. A key point here — the other person has the right to feel however they'd like to feel. It's not our role to convince them otherwise. Our role is to understand their point of view. Also, as you respond, ensure that your facial, vocal and other non-verbal signs are reflecting your feelings of connection plus creating a safe and trusted space for the other person.
While the above three steps may seem a bit mechanical at first, if you practice these techniques with consistency, the process will begin to feel more natural versus forced. Will you increase your ability to empathize? More likely than not. As previously mentioned however, developing one's empathetic capabilities is an involved undertaking. As Dr. Riess stated, empathy training and emotional intelligence education are key to attaining desired results.
It's Time to Change the Paradigm
The world will not stand still for Information Technology organizations who are unwilling or incapable of embracing Customer Empathy as a #1 priority. As service providers, it's inexcusable to say that IT doesn't have the time or energy to deeply invest in our customers so we may ultimately create solutions that match their needs, advance their goals and solve their pain points. Today's enlightened, mobile, more demanding, analytics-savvy, real-time, delivery-driven customers are no longer tolerating IT organizations that fail to innovate in a bottom line impacting way. Don't allow your IT organization to become replaceable.