Thought leadership

Insights from the Nunwood Customer Experience Excellence Centre

“Empathy as a complex emotion is different. It requires awareness of the other person’s feelings and of one’s own reactions. The appropriate reaction may not be to cry when another person cries, but to reassure them, or even to leave them alone.” (Preston, de Waal)

Empathy is more than just seeing the world from the customers’ perspective. It is having the emotional intelligence to choose the right emotional response from a range of potential emotions to improve things for the customer.

Often, organisations believe that Empathy as a soft skill is the preserve of customer-facing staff. Yet Empathy for the customer as a core organisational capability is as relevant for Marketing, HR and the leadership as it is for those who directly serve customers. Being able to put yourself in your customers’ shoes and seeing the world from their perspective is essential for proposition development, innovation and effective strategizing. In fact, it is a source of customer advantage that most organisations completely fail to embrace.

One organisation that has built its entire customer strategy around Empathy is USAA; an American affinity bank who markets its products primarily to members of the US military and their families. Every aspect of their business is geared to seeing the world from their customer’s perspective and reacting in exactly the right way for their customer. It is one of the most successful financial institutions in the world and it tops our 2015 US Customer Experience Excellence Top 100. It is the best of the best.

One reason for its strong performance as a brand is the strong sense of identification between its front-line employees and its customers. USAA does business almost exclusively over the phone and the internet via 13,000 customer service reps. The Company has a much-admired training program in which employees learn the myriad of technical skills they need to work efficiently. But what they really learn is to empathise with and see the world through the eyes of a soldier on active duty in Afghanistan who needs to wire money to a sick parent, the wife of a soldier in Iraq who needs to finance a car, and all of the other unique pressures and demands on its 8.4 million members. Colleen Williams, a Phoenix-based service rep who joined the company in 2008, says the training prepared her to deal with individual family issues when answering calls. “I speak to women who haven’t talked to their husbands in six weeks,” she says. “It never really registered to me, the real disconnect deployed soldiers have from their families.”

How do employees develop that sense of Empathy? When they are about to start their training, employees review “deployment letters” that real soldiers get: “Report to the personnel processing-facility” tomorrow, the letter reads, and get your affairs in order beforehand. This encourages them to think about the financial considerations soldiers go through. They eat MREs (meals ready to eat) during their training, to get a “taste” for the life of a soldier. They walk around in 65-pound backpacks. They read actual letters from soldiers in the field to their families back home. USAA calls it “customer surround sound” — immerse employees in the real life and emotional needs of customers. “There is nobody on this earth who understands their customer better than USAA,” one consultant has said.

That kind of personal identification between employees and customers is what gives USAA the drive, to not just provide great service but to unleash big innovations. For example, it was the first financial services company to allow customers to deposit checks by iPhone. You get a paper cheque, you take a photo with your iPhone, and email it to the bank. It was the first financial services company to allow you to check deposit balances via text message. You text your account number and get a return text with the relevant information. USAA has proven itself to be a technology leader — not because the company is obsessed with technology, but because it is obsessed with customers.

USAA was among the first to let customers initiate an insurance claim using their phones from the scene of an accident. And it soon will expand that app so policyholders can attach photos to the claim and complete the entire process via phone. Customers are even able to attach voice recordings to their file, immediately retelling exactly what happened.

In 2011, USAA launched a mobile car-buying service that lets customers standing at a dealership take an iPhone pic of a vehicle’s VIN number to send to USAA. They instantly receive car insurance quotes, loan terms, and pre-negotiated rates at approved dealerships. “The idea is you can turn that phone around to the salesman”, says Bob Otis, USAA’s vice-president for auto product management, “and say this is the price I’m going to pay”.

The Science behind Empathy

Although not universally shared, there is a strong belief amongst the neuro-scientific community that our brains contain mirror neurones that allow us to replicate in our head what we see others doing.

They are also believed to be helpful in detecting information about other people. How they are feeling or even maybe what they might be thinking or sensing. They enable us to relate to each other in an effect that allows us the opportunity to realise another person’s experiential life.

Dev Patnaik in his book Wired to Care observes that humans seem to lose this ability when in groups or organisations. He explains that empathic organisations like USAA have learnt how to reconnect staff with their mirror neurones so they are able to react with the right emotional response to any given customer situation.

The Golden Rules

Our research shows organisations that prosper as a result of embracing Empathy, follow these golden rules:

Invest time to listen

Psychologists through time have known about the power of feeling understood. Carl Rogers describes it thus “When I have been listened to and when I have been heard, I am able to re-perceive my world in a new way and to go on. It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusions that seem irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard. I have deeply appreciated the times that I have experienced this sensitive, empathic, concentrated listening.”

Lush have operationalised Empathy in the way they approach the customer. Asking a series of open diagnostic questions they are gradually able to home in on products that are exactly right for the individual customer. The commercial outcome of this is astonishing with high NPS scores and high levels of cross sales. All because they are prepared to listen.

Provide the right emotional response

Emotional intelligence is the ability to choose how you respond emotionally to a given situation. When a banking customer has lost their debit card they do not want sympathy, they want reassurance and urgency and to know that the card will be stopped, a new one issued as soon as possible and not to be made to feel stupid.

Leading organisations like Google now rely more on the emotional intelligence ability of the candidate when selecting new recruits than grades or experience. Empathy and emotional intelligence are key elements of customer problem solving and increasingly that is a vital part of the customer experience.

Share your similar experiences make an emotional connection

Online shoe retailer Zappos (recently acquired by Amazon for $1.2bn) identifies as one of their key differentiators, the ability to establish a personal emotional connection (PEC) and leave a lasting memory. This supports their marketing strategy of relying exclusively on positive word of mouth. They recruit people who are naturally empathetic and then train them how to connect.

Their basis for call quality evaluation is the following questions:

  • Did the agent try to make a personal connection with the customer?
  • Did they keep the connection going if the customer responded?
  • Did they discover the customer’s real motivation for buying shoes (e.g. going to a wedding, party, special event etc.); did they ensure that need was met emotionally and rationally?
  • Was it a ‘wow’ experience?


They use a number of different ways to engage with the customer. They talk about the weather, sports or pick up on clues from the customer. More recently, they route calls (where CLI is available) to an agent who has lived or worked in the same state – so they start with something in common. They have also learnt that by sharing their personal experiences it frames the interaction as a discussion between equals.

Treat me as your priority

Empathy-rich experiences occur when the staff member demonstrates a personal interest in the customer. It requires a set of behaviours that combine into a narrative take away that says I am interested in you as a person, I want to be friendly towards you, you are important to me and my organisation. You are valued.

Take ownership of my issue

When customers share an issue, they want the certainty of knowing that someone in the organisation owns their problem and will take personal responsibility for seeing it through to a successful conclusion.

First Direct topped our 2014 UK Customer Experience Excellence study and much of the respondent feedback related to how good First Direct employees are at taking ownership. They listen carefully, probe gently, then take ownership to resolve the query.

Show you care

Respondents talk about staff members showing they care in three different ways:

  • Pays ‘special’ attention to me
  • Goes out of his/her way
  • Gave me something extra that I might not expect but will appreciate (e.g. a cup of coffee)

Body language, tone of voice, enthusiasm all play their part in showing that the staff member cares about achieving a good outcome for the customer.

Empathy is a way of addressing other people’s feelings in a way that helps them feel good about themselves – and feel good about you.

For more Golden Rules to The Six Pillars visit:


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