The Case For Customer Empathy…

Hubspot’s INBOUND 2017 slogan emphasized “Empathy.” My expectation: it would make the case to the 21,000 people in attendance that customer empathy is critical to their engagement efforts. I was for it — it’s something my research focuses on, and is something we in the CX and UX field try to evangelize every single day. Customer empathy really is critical to successfully navigate:

  • The customer. Do we realize how high their expectations are for interactions? Do we get how they feel when they “talk” to the brand through Alexa? Do we understand what the customer need from the brand (ex: with personalization efforts)?
  • Emerging technologies. How do we ensure that AI-fueled experiences benefit people and don’t just test new capabilities? How do we combat problems such as algorithmic biases?
  • Experience requirements. How can we build empathy into increasingly personal and human-like interactions, such as chatbots and other conversational interfaces?

…And Employee Empathy (hint: Great CX Requires Creative CX Pros)

But great CX isn’t based on customer understanding alone – it’s reliant on great CX pros. That’s why it was great to also hear the case for employee empathy. Why is this critical? It helps companies inspire, foster, and retain creative employees. It builds a culture that embraces innovative, differentiating ideas. Listening to Piera Gelardi of Refinery29 and Ed Catmull of Pixar talk, some key takeaways to build an empathetic, creative culture are:

  • Understand the conditions that let an employee’s creativity thrive. A large meeting to brainstorm a VR experience can ignite one person’s ideas another remains silent. Why? As Gelardi emphasized, the conditions for creative success differ for everyone. Your task as a manager: understand this, and create multiple working conditions to solicit ideas. Your task as a contributor: Know what your conditions are. Think of the last time you came up with your best ideas. Were you: under pressure? with a specific person? alone at your desk? listening to Beyoncé?
  • Create a level playing field for idea generation. Anyone can have a good idea, but internal hierarchies can raise – or stifle – some. Your challenge: Create a level playing field. Gelardi and team do goofy warm-up exercises to kick-off meetings to “recognize we’re all human.” And when critiquing work-in-progress at Pixar, Ed Catmull and team create a peer-to-peer group dynamic in a “Braintrust” session where the boss’s opinion doesn’t extra clout, or time.
  • Don’t let a “perfect process” stifle innovation. Today companies are faced with constant change: new tools change how we work, new technologies retrain our brains, and new employees bring new skillsets. Companies focused on working within “perfect” processes can risk responsiveness — and employee appeal. Your task instead: create a process that creates the “perfect conditions” to respond to change. As Catmull said: “It’s not your job to prevent all errors – it’s to be ready to correct them when things go wrong.”
  • Let’s stop telling people they “fail”. The “fail fast” mantra is popular, but Catmull pointed out how its wrought with complication: professionally, “fail” is a learning experience. In all other aspects of life it’s, well, failure. Ed wants to emphasize the former, and “accept failing because it’s doing something new.” I agree, and would take it further. Why don’t we remove the word “fail” completely? Why don’t we “test and learn” rapidly? Or “try” quickly? Or “research” often?

To any of you who also attended INBOUND 2017, what were your key takeaways? And to all: I’ll be continuing my research into emerging experiences and the design teams that build them –  it would great to hear from you about how your company is fostering creative innovation.