Create a Culture that Values Customer Empathy

How to Create a Culture that Values Customer Empathy

By Dorothy Shamonsky, Ph.D.

I would posit that there are two types of workers: those who are mission driven and those who are not. Mission-driven workers care about the outcome of their work and make an effort to understand and track its impact. The latter group enjoys doing the work they have chosen to do but don’t wonder about its impact.

I fall into the former type. As a UX designer, my personal mission is to design products that are highly useable and well loved. In my effort to make good products, I pay close attention to users. Really close attention, listening carefully to what they do with and say about their product experience.

Listening to users is not just my policy; it’s my passion. I truly care about users. It doesn’t really matter if I’m involved in formal research or just informally questioning and observing. My goal is to make great products for people, so getting and understanding user feedback are crucial to my design process.

It’s no surprise that having empathy for your customer is the most important trait of a design-driven organization — one that applies design thinking company-wide.

Empathy for the customer is the secret sauce leading to the mega success of companies like Apple and Intuit. Today, being a design-driven company is one of the most dependable paths to creating popular, successful technology products.

The Role of Empathy

As a design leader, moving your company toward a design-driven approach requires mustering empathy for your customers among your colleagues. But how to do that?

If your organization is like most, the employees want the company to be successful but don’t actually feel empathy for customers. In fact, sometimes they feel the opposite — annoyance or outright contempt. Let’s face it. Although it sounds easy enough, having customer empathy is not an easy or obvious feeling for many people to summon.

But, having empathy for your customers is essential.

Be a Design Evangelist

Ok, you say, we’re now going to change our company culture to consider the needs of our customers more fully. We’ll raise awareness by making a presentation that explains the idea of “empathy for the customer.”

We’ll follow it up with another presentation that educates colleagues in how a design-driven company operates and how it has made many companies wildly successful. And then we’ll announce at the next company meeting: We are now going to feel empathy for our customers!

Well, guess what. It doesn’t work that way. People are resistant to change — and changing hearts and habits is tough. You might get your mission-driven employees on board, but the others will probably continue not to care much about your customers. So how can you really create sea change in your company culture?

Aim for Policy Change

To move toward becoming a more design-driven company, policies must evolve. Staffing decisions and work processes need to be made through the lens of design thinking. Here are a few concrete suggestions:

  • Have a design leader on staff
  • Give your design leader real authority to insure that your company considers the impact any new business strategies may have on customers
  • Examine, track and (potentially) expand the channels available for customer feedback so you can really know your customer
  • Make iteration part of your company culture so that problem solving in all realms of business becomes more inventive and effective

The main trait of design-driven organizations is empathy for the customer. Although this implies a feeling, it actually defines an approach to business and thus needs to be a company policy to be effective.

Empathy for the customer comes directly from designers themselves — from the emotions they have that drive them to create exceptional, well-loved products.

Your company can become design-driven even without emotional buy-in from the general employee population as long as you have the right policies in place. It is from these policies that design-driven organizations can influence the culture — and hearts — of your company. And that’s key to success.

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