The importance of empathy and emotion within Customer Relationship Management

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The importance of empathy and emotion within Customer Relationship Management

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I discussed in a previous article "Holiday Lessons in Customer Experience" that I have been reflecting on my experiences as a customer during my recent summer break away from the office.

I was deeply surprised at how service varied between different places my family visited during August. The experience of service was highly variable not just between different companies but also within different branches of the same company. In my families travels we stayed in a series of hotels and it was interesting chatting with our children about which one they thought was best. Even primary school children can tell the difference between competent, confident members of staff and those who struggle within a system.

All of the hotels and holiday venues we visited had software systems in place. They all had an abundance of technology, whether this was the mobile devices the housekeeping staff carried or the automated switchboards or even the self-service kiosks for paperless check-in, and check-out. These hardware and software systems all intersected on the human staff delivering the service.

This holiday experience drove home the lessons that my colleague David Beard discusses in his blog "Talking about Customers"; That Customer Relationship Management (CRM) is not a software solution but rather is a business approach that is designed to support and enable staff with a high service attitude to serve their customers further.

It is the high service attitude that is key. My family have been in venues and restaurants in which the IT systems were not working but the staff were coping and they made the visits highly enjoyable and completely satisfactory. We also visited venues in which all the IT systems were working but we have left disappointed and expressing negative comments on social networks.

If it is the quality of the human interaction that controls how a customer interprets the experience, then how do we ensure staff demonstrate a high service attitude? It certainly doesn't happen by magic. It requires staff to be engaged repeatedly in creative acts of imagination. They need to think about the experience from the customer's perspective. This in turn requires considerable empathy, the ability to regard matters from another persons point of view.

This is the golden rule applied to customer service. "How would I want to be treated at this moment if I were the customer?".

It is hard enough for staff working face to face with customers, like hotel receptionists and theme park staff, to use their emotional imagination in work but it becomes harder still for those remote from the customer such as call centres staff who handle support phone calls or interact via web chat or live social media streams. If you are an employee dealing with 50 or 60 plus inquiries a day how do you look beyond the black and white text of an email or tweet, to see it more than a complaint or an inquiry but actually attempt to see the person behind that and so engage with the person and not the message?  And this extends to all backoffice staff too; how do we get all staff involved in Customer Relationship Management systems to understand the experience a customer faces? How do we get Self Service website developers, or Customer Service Reps or Indoor Sales to think about the customer not in a transnational way but rather in an emotional, empathetic way?

I am convinced that it is the human emotional engagement that is by far the most important element of CRM that determines the customers satisfaction. Training, coaching and a consistently engaged management has to be in place for an organisation's implementation of a CRM system to bear fruit. Creating happy customers doesn't happen by magic and it doesn't happen because of the software they are using. It happens because each member of staff has been educated so that they consider it their personal responsibility to treat customers in the way they want to be treated.

In the article above I have touched on a topic called Emotional Labour. I have discussed emotional labour in some of the presentations I have given in the past about the use of Sage CRM especially around the use of social media features. For example emotional work is carried out by staff in their interactions on Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook via Sage CRM on behalf of their employer. Anyone interacting with customers in such a public way have to be able understand how their answers and responses can be understood by the customer and others reading their replies.  You can read a brief outline to Emotional Labour on Wikipedia

I would be interested in your comments and whether you agree or disgree that emotional understanding and empathy form part of the skill set needed to make a success of an organisation's customer management approach.

  • Nice thoughts, Jeff ...  

    There's much teeth-gnashing around service quality & human interaction.  It typically manifests itself in discussions around "customer experience" --- the challenge is connecting (balancing?) emotional labour & the promise of brand.  It's a fascinating area and directly impacts the success of CRM programs, imho.  

    Of late, there are some interesting views including "brand engagement is the glue that connects your employees to your customers, the interface between your two most important stakeholder groups" [].  Yet the very same site quotes a report saying that "a staggering 70% of US workers claimed that they’re either not engaged with their jobs, or actively disengaged" [].

    A customer’s first point of interaction with a brand is often through employees; indeed the employee can ‘become’ the brand in a customer’s eyes.  Having a CRM program (systems & thinking) can radically effect the success (or otherwise) of that interaction.

    I wrote about something similar in 2009 [] and, reflecting on those words, I believe the value in connecting corporate goals to systems design remains just as relevant, if not more, today.

    -= David