At this year’s annual MIT CIO Symposium, Story+Structure lead a discussion titled: "An Empathetic Approach to Processes and Systems to Improve End User Satisfaction.” At first, this seemed like an unusual theme for a gathering that usually talks platforms, systems, data, and technology but earlier sessions during the day also centered around delivering great customer experiences.

The “I” in CIO is being slowly replaced by “D” as in Data; as in Digital; as in Design.

Since the advent of the internet, information has taken on a whole new role, meaning, emphasis, and value. Distribution channels have multiplied exponentially. Data points have become increasingly granular, indexing every point in space, time, media, etc.

The challenges facing organizations today aren’t about having enough data but rather the right data and how clean those data sets are. What story are you trying to tell? What value are you trying to derive? One could pinpoint data on X and Y axis and on Z axis but what about the human spirit? How can data pinpoint the moment we fall for a brand experience or drop out of one? Does quantitative data tell enough of the story or can we leverage anecdotal data?

Defining empathy

When our table at the symposium filled with participants, the first question we asked was: What drew you to a table with the word “empathy” on its placard? One person said his name translates to “empathy” in his native language; another said “empathy is something that is lacking or never talked about in the industry”; and a fellow from IBM talked about how he just got back from IBM’s Design Studio in Austin where empathy is the name of the game.

Empathy, understanding, and compassion are words that come up a lot in the design world but not necessarily in the business world as a whole. The idea behind being empathetic—intentionally empathetic—does not easily translate into ROI. They appear to be soft and squishy words better used outside the C-suite and boardroom. But whenever you ask someone about a great customer service experience, the result is always the same:

  1. Someone took a position to compassion, understanding, and empathy to try and solve a problem for you usually beyond their pay level.

  2. Because of this, you hold the brand in higher regard now and would likely recommend it.

If that isn’t ROI, then I don’t want to know what is.

One gentleman related a story about how a mobile phone company presented other plans to him that were more in line with his usage habits and they were cheaper. And because of this, he began recommending the company to his friends. This word-of-mouth validation is priceless and all it took was empathy and understanding to present the best option for the customer—not to maximize profitability.

The shortsighted approach most companies take to customer acquisition harkens from an old business school equation: PV > FV (Present Value is greater than Future Value). While in economic terms that makes perfect sense, often times we find ourselves jumping over a dollar to save a penny. The thing about empathy, compassion, and understanding is that they don’t cost much to introduce into an organization. But its reach and efficacy usually transform the organization’s internal culture! By setting out to intentionally improve outcomes for customers, you will be improving your own internal culture.

As the discussion unfolded, the table was in consensus that it was better to be a company with a culture of empathy. Everyone felt that it was better to lead with understanding and compassion than quotas or business objectives. So we asked:

What stops companies from being more empathetic?

Here is some of what we heard:

  • Employee performance does not reward you for taking the most care of a customer but rather for selling to the greatest number of customers. For example, a doctor’s performance might be based on how many people he/she sees in one day versus the amount of care given to helping a patient.

  • Natural resistance to change even if the evidence is there. Pure and simple, this is about inertia. It takes a lot to turn the Titanic.

  • Gender roles: many folks in technology are men and men are simply not taught to show vulnerability—which by the way is a key pathway to empathy.

  • Big companies are simply out of touch with what matters “on the ground.”

  • While many companies might see the value in leading with empathy, they simply will not take a chance for fear of failure.

All these points are perfectly valid but they all center on misunderstanding the value of empathy, compassion, and understanding.

In recent times, there was a great movement to have medical doctors apologize to a patient or family for errors they might have made. At first, this would seem like a nightmare or admission of guilt for a malpractice suit. However, at one hospital “the number of malpractice filings against the [hospital] dropped by half since it started its program [of apologizing for errors]. In the 37 cases where the hospital acknowledged a preventable error and apologized, only one patient has filed suit. Only six settlements have exceeded the hospital’s medical and related expenses.

So how do we get to empathy? The biggest doorway is vulnerability. No one likes to fail. Many times we cover it up and hope no one was looking or find a way to spin it off. However, many studies have shown that if a company apologizes for how it mistreated you, your perception of their brand value increases—sometimes higher than your initial perception.

Reference: Doctors Say ‘I’m Sorry’ Before ‘See You in Court’ (Sack, Kevin) []