‘Empathy Needs to be Enabled Through People, Processes, and Technology’ – Forrester Analyst

Joana de Quintanilha, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester, speaks to MyCustomer on striking a balance between quantification and humanisation, sharing insights on making empathy tangible and connecting with customers on a human level.

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Published: July 12, 2023

Sabine Groven

Sabine Groven

At a time when the cost-of-living crisis continues to impact individuals and communities, empathy remains an essential topic for organisations striving to enhance customer experience.

To shed light on the importance of empathy and its practical applications, we spoke with Joana de Quintanilha, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester.

With her extensive expertise in CX and a focus on sparking, nurturing, and firing up empathy, Joana shares insights on striking the delicate balance between quantification and humanisation, addressing challenges in making empathy tangible whilst giving practical tools for connecting with customers on a human level.

Despite being a longstanding topic of focus, empathy remains highly relevant and applicable. For CX professionals, striking the right balance between quantification and humanisation can be challenging. In your opinion, what would be the most effective starting point to get the balance right?

There are of course teams who have neither qualitative nor quantitative data to back up their decisions. This type of decision making is what we call simply “careless guesswork.” We recommend starting with the qualitative to uncover the “why” and connect with the human(s). Start with ethnographic work, contextual interviews, focus groups, and the qualitative comments in customer feedback, and then turn to the results of quantitative surveys. A qualitative approach will save you time in the long run. Don’t skip the qualitative research, it helps you acknowledge how your products and services fit into customers’ lives, not the other way around.

Of course, with the right tools and metrics in place you can look for empathy signals: anomalies, trends, spikes, drop-offs, changes in behaviour, etc. Using Quantum Metric session replays, clothing retailer UNTUCKit identified an issue with category filters which allowed them to recoup an estimated $1 million in annual revenue once redesigned.

A financial-services company saw that seventy-five percent of mobile users were getting an error when making a deposit, and rage tapping to try and fix the problem. A session replay showed that there was a terms and conditions box that customers were not able to see. Able to detect that, show the exact experience, show it was happening to 75% of mobile users, and that it was linked to a drop in deposits, they were able to prioritise fixing the problem. That is the power of combining quantitative and qualitative data and research methods at speed.

What challenges do organisations face in pinning down and making empathy tangible?

Empathy is a hard thing to pin down, make tangible, and get right. In fact, only 62% of senior executives say that they can put themselves in their customers’ shoes. Philosopher and author Roman Krznaric defines empathy as “the art of stepping imaginatively into the shoes of another person, understanding their feelings and perspectives, and using that understanding to guide your actions.” Empathy can be cognitive (i.e., understanding another’s perspective) or affective (i.e., a shared emotional response). It involves gaining an understanding of someone’s feelings and perspectives and using that to guide our actions. I think that is where companies struggle, driving action from empathy. Real empathy starts from a place of radical humility. It’s not what you know; it’s what you’re willing to learn and how you “use that understanding to guide your actions” that provide space for empathy.

Empathy isn’t without its perils. It can be speculative when we lack context, selective when we struggle or refuse to put ourselves in someone’s shoes, incapacitating when we over-empathize and fall into empathic distress, dehumanising when we judge, inappropriate when it isn’t applied discerningly and situationally. Which is why we talk about reaching the right point of empathy. It all starts with a spark of empathy (for that we need to connect 1:1 with the individual on a human level), we nurture the embers of empathy, and then kindle the fire to drive empathy at scale. Companies need to do three things to make empathy tangible:

  1. Spark empathy by aligning on who they’re empathising with, connecting at a human level to uncover how people feel, behave, and think, and provoke debate.
  2. Nurture empathy by rightsizing through quantification, bringing stakeholders along with audience empathy, and showing your work.
  3. Fire up empathy by enabling employees to act with empathy at scale (through people, processes, and technology), kindling to engage and diversify, and using it to regenerate to rethink notions of value and push innovation.

How can organisations turn inward and apply audience empathy to bring people along on the empathy journey?

To drive action, we need to bring stakeholders along. The best way to bring people along is to have them participate in customer research and immersion sessions firsthand. When we conduct research, we can’t just provide a read-out and drop it on someone’s desk — we need to turn inward and use audience empathy. One company started using audience personas by level and function to gauge typical mindsets, beliefs, feelings, questions, and concerns. Using insights from interviews, they identified how each employee segment felt about the change effort and planned communications based on whether they were excited, frightened, or frustrated. Excited employees received a communication encouraging them to motivate more reluctant peers.

We also need to show our work. Like working on a mathematical problem at school, this is an essential part of the problem-solving process. One company developed 20 different use cases (e.g., payment confirmations, account and info updates, and real-time system outage notifications). Success in these use cases led to a broader journey solution and the company is now working on broader billing initiatives.

What strategies can organisations employ to enable employees to act on empathy and sustain it as a driving force for innovation?

Empathy needs to be enabled through people, processes, and technology. A company’s culture — including the behaviours it rewards, the values it upholds, and the metrics it tracks — determines the level of empathy. Online marketplace Bol.com trains service experts on “top questions” and how to find “the hook” (i.e., the story behind a customer’s question) in every call. Is the package a birthday present? Is it a camera they want to take on a holiday? It trains service experts to make notes after calls, gives them time to do so, and allocates an individual budget they can use to send out postcards and other gifts to make things right and create empathic joy.

You must empower people to act with empathy at scale. You also need to be prepared to be bold. That’s why provocations are so important – we provoke to spark creativity, unlock new thinking, and stir debate. These “provocations,” challenging norms and age-old traditions, form the scaffold for new products, services, or ideas. One supermarket chain in the Netherlands decided to slow things down with a ‘slow checkout lane’ or Kletskassa literally translated “a chatty lane” for customers who like talking to the staff or others during their checkout process. It turned out to be such a huge success that the supermarket pledged to spread them nationwide in areas affected by loneliness. A great investment in customer and employee experience.

How can empathy be effectively scaled across an organisation to create an ’empathic fire’ that fuels transformative innovation?

To drive both incremental and transformative innovation, you must democratise access to customer and employee research with snackable insights and broaden participation in immersive and observational studies. Kindling the empathy fire brings intellectual diversity to the insights. HelloFresh puts on an insights show using videos of curated learnings. Other companies are experimenting with letting employees engage with video clips and insights as they would on TikTok or Instagram. There are also techniques we can use to challenge understandings of what’s considered valuable like widening the aperture (looking further upstream and downstream in your journeys), research with edge cases, non-customers, customers of customers, or groups of individuals can also push the boundaries.

Finally, can you give MyCustomer’s readers some practical tools and techniques for connecting with the human aspects of customers?

There are many empathy tools out there. We have identified four main tool types: immersive, observational, collaborative, and quantitative.

Immersive tools like body storm, sense swap, and role-play provide insights around contextualisation, emotional intensity, and memory retention.

Observational tools like contextual inquiry and shadowing provide insights about triggers, how the product fits into customers’ systems, user customization, intangible/invisible attributes, and unarticulated user needs.

Collaborative tools like heuristics evaluations, empathy mapping, and journey mapping drive cross-functional alignment, co-creation, and democratisation.

Finally, quantitative tools like surveys and driver analysis provide insights about business impact, frequency, and prioritisation.

There is no one tool that helps us to connect with the human aspects of customers, it depends on our goal, and the scope of what we are trying to understand. We often need to use a combination of tools. That said, I think many companies tend to over-index on quantitative and collaborative tools. I would urge MyCustomer’s readers to start with qualitative research that favours immersive and observational tools to uncover the “why,” connect with the human, and understand context, emotion, and implicit/explicit behaviour.

The next time you journey map, ask yourself: Have I paid enough attention to how customers are thinking (their mental models), their physical and mental context, and their intent (their motivations, aspirations, the bigger picture of what they are trying to get done, not just what they are doing)?

The very top row of your journey map should capture the human behind the experience, preferably based on immersive and observational research.

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