Ernest Hemingway once counselled that it is important to “listen completely” when people talk. Most people, he said, never listen in the first place.
Strange though it seems to take advice from a novelist in the context of the customer journey, there is much to be said about the human capacity to empathise. And empathy starts with listening.
Empathy is not a soft skill. It has hard-nosed business benefits. The global analytics business Nielsen tracks tens of thousands of product launches every year to identify the most innovative. Its 2019 results identified empathy as the single most important rule for “new product innovation success.” Understanding customers, it seems, still underpins good business.
In a marketplace filled with technological solutions, it could be people who make the difference in the next phase of modern customer service. Research into the causes and origins of empathy has shown that we are hard-wired to perceive the emotions of others and to resonate with them emotionally. As such, it is in fact something that can be taught, not an immutable trait only the lucky were blessed with.
In medicine, empathetic care has been linked to better patient experiences, adherence to treatment recommendations and better clinical outcomes. On the flip side, empathetic doctors make fewer medical errors. These are outcomes any sector would relish, and they are certainly transferable.
In many commercial settings, empathetic customer service should mean better customer experiences and improved loyalty. It might also mean fewer misadventures when conflict tends to lead to lost custom.
Many now agree empathy is not a soft subject in customer experience design, but a genuine component part that should be nurtured deliberately (for example, empathy is one of KPMG’s six pillars of experience excellence).
To customers themselves, it may feel counter-intuitive to hear that companies that aim to improve customer service are investing not only in technology, but also in human skills.
Customers rely so heavily on technology in their day-to-day lives that it wouldn’t be out of place to expect the same to be the case when engaging with a brand.
But it’s not. There’s a blend, a balancing act. Whilst technology is changing the way we live our lives, we all still want someone to talk to when we have a problem that needs solving. Why else have call centres been over-run since lockdown restrictions were enforced and everything from retailers to airlines have had to respond to new customer needs?
The sooner customer service teams can identify the right blend for them, the better.
We are already seeing a potential over-reliance on automation and digitisation in our industry. Yes, machine learning and effective use of data can improve customer experience – that is true in many ways. And of course, our investment in own software business, Inisoft, shows just how important good use of the right tech in a contact centre is. But it is called customer ‘experience’, not customer ‘calculation’. We have invested 750,000 hours of development time in our people in the last 12 months because we believe that balance is best weighted in favour of the individual, not the technology.
Disruption comes when well-trained, empathetic teams perform better than average teams aided by technology. That is not to say the role of data is unimportant: unifying and normalising data sets and using software and machine learning or Artificial Intelligence to analyse them, makes perfect sense. We do it for all our clients.
But if we become slaves to data we will end up standing still. The only way to truly progress in customer experience is to blend technology with advanced human interventions, training and development so that the two complement each other.
This approach is particularly effective in regulated industries. The Treating Customers Fairly principle underpins those sectors and all regulated companies have to demonstrate that they can uphold them. Helplines have to support vulnerable customers, including those without access to the internet (over five million people in the UK).
Multi-channel contact centres with advisers who display compassion and empathy to support all customers are essential requirements in those circumstances. However, often this is underpinned by rigorous, technologically-driven CRM solutions. For example, unified agent desktops that integrate with voice, emails, white mail, web chat, SMS and web. This makes life easier for the adviser, guiding them through the call and freeing them up to carefully choose their words and actions.
It is hard to think that putting people first in this way is innovative. In the modern context, particularly. The word ‘innovation’ has taken on a technological meaning in business recently.
It is time to remember that innovation is rooted in creativity and improvement, whatever the context. And what could be more innovative, more creative, more disruptive, more improving, than people themselves?