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StrategyAug 29, 2016

Creating Loyalty Through Empathy

Will Davis

I recently had a terrible experience with my pickup truck, so bad that I got rid of the truck and told the company I’d never buy a vehicle from them again.  So what happened?

My Experience as a Customer

I bought my truck in 2011 and loved her at first sight. Her name was Charlotte (Char-Char for short). I grew up in West Texas, so I had a strong attachment to my truck. Charlotte had an issue where she would downshift from sixth gear to first when going about 65 mph.  This caused the whole truck to jolt and the rear end to lose traction—not exactly safe!

The manufacturer announced a recall for the problem but, long story short, they refused to fix the vehicle for another six months or offer a loaner.  I called every number I knew to call, including customer service, but to no avail.  I also sent an email to their vice president of customer service, who confirmed that they couldn’t fix my vehicle for another six months, which meant I had to drive an unsafe vehicle and bear the risk to myself and my family.

The experience was an exhausting one.  What made this the worst experience I’d ever had?  A consistent lack of empathy.

Lack of Empathy

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Think through your worst experiences. I bet many of them escalated when you began interacting with someone or something (e.g., bot, automated recording, etc.) that showed no empathy for your struggle. They said they cared or understood my frustration, but I didn’t feel like it.

And ultimately that lack of empathy is the quickest way to destroy emotional loyalty. Gallup research suggests that economic decisions are close to 70% emotional and 30% rational (The Coming Jobs War: What Every Leader Must Know About the Future of Job Creation by Jim Clifton), and this emotional connection is even more critical with millenials (according to the Temkin Group’s Q1 2015 Consumer Benchmark Study).

Maybe some of you reading this recognize that your company has an issue with customer churn. Your lack of empathy may be destroying your customer loyalty.

Evaluating Your Company__’__s Empathy

For companies dealing with high churn, one of the most effective investments can be developing a customer empathy strategy. Start out by revisiting your customer service policies and determining, based on quantitative data, the impacts of the policies. Below are a few quick questions to begin evaluating and developing your company’s ability to express empathy and connect emotionally with your customer:

  1. What levers do you give your customer service agents to make things right?

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  2. Do you give your team the ability to escalate to a manager, director, or vice president when they feel it’s the right thing to do (as opposed to when prompted by a customer)?

  3. Do your agents have a method (e.g., Voice of the Employee program) to recommend improvements to processes?

  4. What latitude do you give your customer service agents in exercising judgment?

  5. Are your customer service agents rated based on call time?

The underlying motive in asking these questions is to empower and incentivize our customer service agents to provide an empathetic response that inspires an emotional connection with our customers. As Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Kanter points out, “powerlessness corrupts,” and rendering your customer service agents helpless leaves them frustrated—a frustration that translates directly to your customers.

Expressing empathy in your customer interactions requires that your customer service agents be motivated and engaged, and engagement is dependent on leadership, culture, and organizational design. An effective customer empathy strategy requires the three to be aligned.

Lesson Learned

While I still resent the poor treatment I received from the car manufacturer, I am appreciative of the lessons I’ve been able to apply in my professional life. As a management consultant at Credera, I’m afforded the opportunities to help clients improve their customer experience and loyalty programs. Hopefully my rough experience and the insights I derived from it and shared here will help improve your company’s customer experience.