The Empathy Economy: Care, so your customers will too
Last updated September 21, 2021
I probably don’t need to tell you this, but trust is in short supply these days. According to Edelman’s Trust Barometer, 2018 has the dubious distinction of being the year “that trust in the U.S. has suffered the largest-ever-recorded drop in the survey’s history among the general population.” And there’s plenty of blame to throw around, with multiple forces eroding our goodwill.
With Americans losing faith in government, the media, and other institutions they once believed in, there’s a real opening for businesses. But not just any type of business. Specifically, companies that display humanity, not hubris, and work for good, not greed, may be the antidote to what ails us.
After years of flirting with companies that offer enticing services and heady perks, we’re ready for more mature relationships. Now that we’ve played the field, as it were, we’re drawn to companies that offer something real with respect to mission and values. Tired of a lack of true engagement from other entities, we’re putting businesses front and center as we search for connection. How companies take up the challenge has real implications for their longevity.
Trading on trust and empathy
As noted in Edelman’s Trust Barometer summary, “Business is now expected to be an agent of change. The employer is the new safe house in global governance, with 72 percent of respondents saying that they trust their own company. And 64 percent believe a company can take actions that both increase profits and improve economic and social conditions in the community where it operates.”
A few decades ago, it was acceptable for corporations to be laser-focused on making money…lots of it. Fast forward to today and expectations have changed. Increasingly, we look to companies to operate with a conscience, to be agents for positive change in their communities, if not the world. So what’s changed? For starters, we, the customers, have unprecedented access to information and wield amazing power via social media to expose less-than-stellar track records on everything from environmental practices to pay equity.
A few decades ago, it was acceptable for corporations to be laser-focused on making money… lots of it. Fast forward to today and expectations have changed.
There’s also been a shift in our collective understanding of what’s important. Spearheaded by the children of Baby Boomers, who are less well-off by most measures than their parents, we’re reacting to a capitalist society that has failed with respect to education, health care, and the environment, to name just a few. Increasingly, we’re looking elsewhere for solutions. And we’re guided by the success some forward-thinking companies have had in building tremendously successful businesses while also working to make the world a better place.
In other words, the expectation economy hasn’t just affected the level of service we expect from our brands, it’s also defined our demands when it comes to corporate conscience. As a cohort, Millennials not only demand more from the companies they purchase from, they also require a deeper commitment to doing good from companies they work for. Corporate greed is out; corporate social responsibility is in. And ironically, though feel-good feelings are typically hard to gauge, they can now be increasingly measured in sales.
Customer support moves to the foreground
A recent survey of which brands consumers find most trustworthy offers another glimpse of what’s coming with respect to brand loyalty. “Notably, three in five 13-34-year-olds say that they trust a brand more when they have reliable customer service.” Translation? Only when consumers experience visible, palpable customer service, will a brand (or company) earn their trust.
These new realities about today’s business landscape join another: Like it or not, we’re barreling toward a new age, The Age of Automation. According to McKinsey & Company, by the year 2030, as many as 800 million workers worldwide could be replaced at work by robots and up to 750 million of those will need to find new skills to stay employed. The good news? Given what today’s customers expect from companies, robots won’t have all the answers.
Automation in customer service increases efficiency and focus and frees up human workers for more nuanced and stimulating roles. And that’s a good thing. Because what happens when human understanding and emotional literacy are called for to solve a customer problem? Increased demand for excellent, empathic customer service.
According to Doug Clinton, writing for Business Insider, “As the Automation Age eliminates rote and some not-so-rote tasks, it will create an opportunity for humans to capitalize on empathy. The manifestation of empathy in industry is through unique and memorable customer service, no matter the business.” And, “As we enter the age of automation, customer service specialists will become the new rock stars of the technology industry.”
As customer service departments move into the limelight, their special sauce needs to permeate the organization at large. Customer service will emerge as the true heart and soul of the company, the avenue by which companies express their values. Tiffany Apczynski, vice president of public policy and social impact for Zendesk, explained, “As we streamline our businesses with tech to be more efficient, transparent, automated, the burden or opportunity for human relationships fall to customer support teams.”
Customer service will emerge as the true heart and soul of the company, the avenue by which companies express their values.
Adopting a customer service mindset and culture of empathy across an entire business often requires a rewiring of goals and enhanced communication of values. Companies must now figure out how to succeed at empathy in order to build and maintain customer trust. While this has clear implications for the role of customer service, companies will need go above and beyond prioritizing excellent support.
A robust—and authentic—Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) ethos is one of the clearest ways for businesses to telegraph to current and prospective customers that they care. According to consultant Dorothy Crenshaw, successful CSR programs have several things in common. They demonstrate an authentic connection to a company’s brand and employee values, include clear and transparent communication of the program’s impact, offer year-round engagement and are supported at every level within the organization.
The key for any company ready to embrace a strong CSR program is to make it count. You may not have the reach and resources of a multinational company but your impact on your local community and your staff can still be real and lasting.
We all have ideals; now we can live by them
As Pedro Pereira, head of digital innovation for Middle East and North Africa at SAP, writes for Digitalist Magazine, “The empathy economy is not just about customers. It is about pursuing an ideal. By connecting all these stakeholders in a meaningful experience, digitization and automation can inspire everyone to aspire to a higher ideal. An empathetic business caters not only to actual human needs but also aspires to the greater purpose of improving the human condition.”
Technology has allowed innovative entrepreneurs to solve a vast array of problems, including many we didn’t even know we had. The good news for anyone worried that the trendline leads to robots taking over is that even though we’ve become accustomed to the new world order, we haven’t given up on our humanity. Evidence indicates that when a company, at its most basic level, is simply a hyper-intelligent set of codes with a hollow core, or worse, acts as a smokescreen for practices that go against commonly-held values, customers reject it. And, just like that, we’re back to trust.
As we become more fully engaged in this next wave, a company’s culture must resonate with customers on a deep level. Like the old adage, beauty is much more than skin-deep and companies must do more than attract us. Customers must feel deeply connected to the soul of the company if they’re to stay loyal and engaged. And increasingly, the thread maintaining these connections is empathy.