Empathy and Customers in the Information Age

I’ve been thinking about our need to connect more with customers and demonstrate more empathy, especially in large organizations and workplaces. Some companies excel at this, but most don’t. I see this in the work I do coaching and consulting.

Most organizations over-rely on data, to the exclusion of face-to-face customer contact. It’s important to remember that we are intrinsically social animals, with an innate ability to sense what others are thinking and feeling.

We rely on our intuition to help us make decisions. But in large groups, contact is lost — as is our instinct for determining what’s going on outside the group. Corporations can become far too insular.

If you stay in touch with colleagues and customers, you’ll have a better sense of what’s going on in the world. You’ll also surpass competitors at spotting new opportunities.

Large institutions often choose to rely on data and market research for information on customer experiences, abandoning face-to-face interactions that preserve relationships. These businesses invariably become far removed from their customers’ day-to-day lives.

In the words of Polish philosopher Alfred Korzybski, the map is not the territory. How can you understand your client when all you have are demographics and personas?

Harley-Davidson is one notable exception, its office a shrine to the motorcycle culture the company helped create. Offices display photos, memorabilia and banners from rallies. Customers and employees ride together. Engineers, accountants and administrative staff acquire an intuitive understanding of the customers who buy their products.

Harley-Davidson’s leaders mandate that company executives spend measurable time on the streets with motorcycle riders. While many employees don’t ride, the company nonetheless instills its lifestyle and values. Empathy is a key element of this corporate strategy.

In many workplaces, however, this is not the case. Instead of opportunities to mingle with customers, marketing departments rely on data to identify the demographics of their customers. Personas are created from marketing research and internet data to represent groups of customers.

Companies monitor pictures, Web browsing history and the ads people select or choose to click, and based on that data, they tailor their merchandise to a targeted audience.

How about in your place of work? In what ways are there missed opportunities to connect with real clients? I’d love to hear from you.

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  1. […] will protect them from eroding profit margins and commoditization. When companies concentrate on customer relationships, they usually devote most of their  attention to CRM technology that monitors customer […]

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