October 30, 2017

To improve the customer experience, you must first see and feel, what the customer is going through. In short, you must empathise. Once you can see the service or product through the customer’s eyes, and really understand what is good and bad, then you can begin to improve it. Not before.

Empathy is hard. In all the workshops and projects we have been involved in, empathy is regularly described as the hardest step for participants not used to looking at the world through someone else’s eyes. Daily examples abound.

One of the most ridiculous is the calendar invite. Often I receive a calendar invite for an event quite far off in the future that is described as a meeting with Brand Manual. The location is marked as magic forest, which probably is the name of a conference room. Two months later, looking at my weekly schedule I suddenly notice a meeting with myself that will take place in the magic forest. I’ve no memory of what, where, why and how. I swipe to delete because it’s obviously wrong. Fortunately, the calendar then prompts me that I’m declining a calendar invitation of from, which finally makes me remember what the meeting is actually going to be about. Of course, in’s calendar the invite makes complete sense. For a person at Brand Manual a meeting with Brand Manual makes no sense at all.
The same thing goes for file names. If you are in an organisation where a lot of files are shared, and worked on by different people at different times, then it makes sense to name the files in a way that make sense to anyone, not just the original author. Otherwise, all you will end up with is a mess of files that don’t make much sense. And after a while, the original author also forgets what the meaning behind the cryptic name was and then, it’s lost to everyone.

Understanding context is the foundation for empathy on a daily basis. Because context is what gives information meaning, the removal of context renders information useless. All problems customers have, in every situation, are communication problems caused by the difference in context between the creator of the information and the consumer of the information. Witness the complicated legalese in official documents created for citizens that they just cannot understand. The lawyer’s context makes the document completely normal whereas for regular people the document is a complete anomaly in comparison to every other piece of information consumed during the week.

Signage in public areas, if placed there without considering the context of people walking past, will leave only the context of the person placing the sign. S(he) obviously isn’t lost. And may not consider the fact, that people walking past may be.

Empathising requires us to place ourselves into the context of our customer, to feel what they are feeling when trying to use our service or product. To do this, we have to talk to real customers about their customer journey. To observe them using it. To ask them why they did what they did. Empathy cannot be achieved sending questionnaires to customers or working inside your own head.

All customer experiences are based on context: the time (time of day and time available), the location (where it is happening, physically and virtually) and motivation (how important is it). Empathising requires you to place yourself into the shoes of the customer under the same circumstances. This is one of the reasons, why meeting people in their home to talk about the washing up makes so much more sense, than inviting them to a lab, that is no-one’s home.

Time is the currency of life. There is a finite amount and the amount of it that someone is willing to invest into understanding how a new video editing software works depends very much on their motivation: is it part of the job, or is it just to pass the time? The time to mow the lawn is dependent on how perfect it has to be (your motivation). The time spent filling in a tax-return depends on how important it is to you.

All of the above have a location. The location is either comfortable or uncomfortable. It is either chosen by you or chosen by the service provider. It is either logical and convenient or inconvenient. A long drive away or behind complicated logins that you can’t remember.

To untangle people’s motivations, we can use an empathy map to approximate what they could be going through at one or another touchpoint. It helps us see the world from their point of view and understand their motivation at a particular point-in-time. However, they are not a substitute to actually going through the same situation yourself, or together with a real customer.

You are “home-blind” about your product or service. You know it, whereas they only see and use it. You may know how it works, and why it works the way it works. For the customer it merely delivers a service or doesn’t or not well or delightfully. To be able to empathise, you must be able to re-evaluate all of your most basic presumptions. Not because they are wrong, but because they may simply be outdated.

For example, while you as a mortgage loan company are looking at different options for allowing people to borrow money to buy a home, they may no longer be considering purchase of real estate as desirable. Car loans and leasing in an environment where owning a fossil fuel powered car is playing Russian roulette, may need a new outlet. One prediction is that with electric vehicles and autonomous driving the car market of the future may shrink 90% and ownership will be pointless. People today are more likely to move around from job to job, therefore home ownership is not reasonable.

Simply put, the context for the customer is changing. If you cannot empathise with the customer, from their point-of-view, you may just end up barking at the moon.