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Empathy in the Digital Era

Growing up, my brother was autistic. Autism affects different people in different ways, but for him, what it meant was that he couldn’t communicate well — particularly his emotions. He could tell you factual things: “I went to the park. I ate lunch.” What he would have trouble telling you was “I feel unhappy because I was left out of a group activity at school”. Because he couldn’t express this, we would often continue to do things to upset him simply because we didn’t know — until, of course, it reached a breaking point.
This would often culminate in public tantrums. This was particularly tough for my parents; they had trouble understanding what he wanted. And so I often found myself taking on the role of trying to build that understanding. At first, I would try to just guess; often, I’d be wrong. Over time, my approach changed, and the guesses became more accurate. What I’d do: I’d go back in time to understand the set of experiences he had. I would walk a mile in his shoes: retrace his steps to get to where he is today. “You’ve spent three hours with family friends; it’s difficult for you to get along with them and you feel drained. So you’d like to spend some time alone to recharge?” By becoming better at understanding what had happened, I became more attuned to the emotions associated with those experiences and testing what to do next.
The reason I tell you this story is that I believe there’s a parallel here in the world of business. Traditionally, business has relied heavily on personal connections. Your bank may be terrible, but if your banker goes out of his way to make things work for you — you stay with the bank. Because there’s a human there, he’ll ask you how you’re feeling; he’ll see that things aren’t working and go about making it right. In effect, an organization’s frontline could effectively make up for the failures in the system.
But as the world transitions to digital, this is completely changing. Fifteen or twenty years ago, you ask people about a great experience and they’d tell you about individual interactions they had with staff — the airline host who helped a mother when her child was sick. Now, you ask that same question, and people talk about Amazon, because they don’t have to interact with anyone — it just works. In this world, your customers aren’t engaging with your frontline staff; instead, they’re engaging with you through your online channels. Nobody’s going to be there to see they’re upset, or that they can’t do what they want to do. And they won’t tell you they’re unhappy — there’s no frontline “valve” for them to express it to. They’ll just leave.
In effect, the world is becoming more autistic.
Given how critical empathy has been to the success of businesses in the physical world, finding a way of continuing to enable it to happen in the digital era is essential. It’s all about putting yourself in your customers’ shoes. There are three key components to ensuring you remain empathetic in the digital era:

  1. It is now more important than ever to ask.  Nothing beats asking for feedback. Checking with my brother on whether my hypothesis for what he wanted or what he was feeling helped me develop better “antenna” for empathy. Getting feedback from your customers in the digital era is now easier than ever, and a range of leading disruptors are relying on it to build empathy into their businesses. Airbnb, for example, requests customer feedback from all hosts and all guests to understand what their experience was like — what worked well, and what could be improved.
  2. Use digital data to create intuition when you’re not getting direct feedback. Sometimes, people won’t tell you what they’re feeling. Sometimes, like my brother, they’re not able to tell you what they’re feeling. The advantage of engaging with your customers over digital channels is that there’s a record of all their behavior — and you can use this to fill in the picture when they’re not able to tell you. If you see their behavior change — they’re engaging with you less or more — what’s the cause? Are there groups of customers behaving in similar ways? It may sound ironic that a whole bunch of 1’s and 0’s can help you build empathy with your customers, but in many respects it’s a reflection of their digital selves that you can use to better understand them.
  3. Walk a mile in your customers’ shoes. Many of the best innovations of our time came from people who experienced a big pain point intimately.  Steve Jobs started using the first iPhone a few weeks before launch, and realized its plastic screen scratched very easily with keys in his pocket.  He replaced the plastic screen with the unscratchable glass that we all know and love. As more and more interactions become digital, it’s easier than ever to become a power user of your own offering. Use your own mobile app. Register complaints and resolve problems through your customers’ chat and social media channels. There’s no better way to understand the experience your customers have; to feel the pain they are feeling; and to compel yourself to do something about it.

It would be a serious mistake to think that as the world is moving to digital, empathy is becoming less important. If anything, it’s the opposite. It’s just the means of you getting to empathy are changing — and you need to make sure you’re not missing one of the most critical traits to competitive success in the digital era.
Photo Credit: Alex Guibord

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