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The Difference Between Customer Sympathy and Customer Empathy

A customer walks into a clothing store and buys two pairs of pants. A week later, she visits a different location of the same retailer to return one of her purchases. That evening, she fills out a survey about her return experience, ultimately giving it a score of 9 out of 10.
What emotions does she experience throughout this process?
You could probably hazard a guess from the narrative alone. But to give an answer you’re confident in, you’d probably prefer to have more information. What was the atmosphere in each store when the customer first arrived? Were the pants she bought the ones she was hoping to buy? What led her to return one of them later on?
This information would paint a picture of her emotional state, in addition to the tangible goals she was hoping to accomplish. It would help the retailer understand how good of a job it did in meeting the customer’s needs — and would be useful in designing these experiences to deliver better, more personalized service in the future.
Now ask yourself: do you currently have this level of insights into your own customers’ emotions?
Kaaren Hanson, Medallia’s VP of Design, has explored this issue in depth. In a presentation last year at Experience 2015, Medallia’s customer experience conference, Hanson explained that when it comes to designing customer experiences, customer emotions are often overlooked. Emotions often influence your customers’ behavior just as much as their rational needs. Yet since they can be hard to measure and quantify, emotions tend to remain as mysterious as in the example at the beginning of this article.
So how can you overcome this challenge, and design experiences that account for customer emotions?
It starts with developing empathy, Hanson said. Having empathy for your customers means understanding and sharing their emotions on a personal level, rather than just knowing what they feel and feeling sympathetic when something goes wrong.
One way of building empathy is to observe first-hand as customers interact with your company, and look for the different emotions they experience during each interaction. Emotions are contagious, Hanson states. As you observe your customers, you will empathize with how they are feeling in ways you might not have expected. As simple as this sounds, when was the last time you or other leaders in your company took the time to do it?
In order to capture these learnings, it’s also helpful to create a journey map of the different emotions customers experience during interactions with your company. These maps are often used to chart how tangible customer needs change during a journey, and to identify recurring themes. Going through a similar mapping process with customer emotions will help you gain a similarly broad perspective.
This is just the start of understanding customer emotions, of course — and customer empathy is just one element to incorporate into the design of your customer experience. If you’d like to learn more about these elements, you’re in luck. At this year’s Experience conference, Kaaren Hanson will present five new valuable design trends that have emerged as a result of customers’ changing needs.
You can learn more about her presentation, as well as the rest of the agenda, right here!

Photo Credit: Russell Johnson

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