Empathy as a Commodity: Customer Experience Pivots Post-Pandemic

In the wake of COVID-19, the role of customer experience is at a crucial tipping point. Many organisations are asking, is CX a non-essential business function that gets cut when budgets are trimmed? Or does CX have an opportunity to move up the value chain in enterprise organisations? 

Since the pandemic transcended into Australia/New Zealand in early 2020, InMoment’s APAC Sales Director Simon Benns has seen an interesting shift toward an empathy economy. Brands that are able to harness empathy and work toward achieving a more authentic customer experience will reach the top of its vertical and continuously achieve meaningful improvement for itself and its customers.

Market Disruption has Exposed the Need for Experience Improvement

Years have passed since 2014 when Gartner boldly declared that “customer experience is the new battleground for businesses.” Despite most brands declaring to be customer-centric, many CX programs have failed to realise the full potential of an experience management program. According to a more recent Gartner report pre-pandemic, only 22% of CX Leaders can say that their programs exceeded customer expectations. Now in the wake of COVID-19, customer experience leaders have been forced into the spotlight and asked to prove the value of these experience management programs back to the business. 

The global pandemic has led to a shifted relationship between businesses and their customers. Globally, brands have grappled with how to navigate through these turbulent times and emerge with customer relationships intact. Marketing strategies in most organisations have quickly pivoted to adapt with advertisements and corporate communications declaring “we are here to help!” From Dove telling consumers that it’s not important which brand of soap that we use as long as we wash our hands, to QBE giving cash back to every car insurance customer, as consumers we are being told that “we’ll get through this together.”

Empathy is Now a CX Commodity  

Companies that are surviving and thriving are those that are exhibiting emotional intelligence and communicating with care, honesty, and empathy. In these emotionally testing times, many people are highly sensitive and prepared to make choices based on how much they feel a company truly understands them. Consumers are noticing when brands reach out to try and help, versus when they are being sold to. Brands are not competing over who has the best price or product, but on kindness. It feels that the battleground of the moment is empathy. 

When the pandemic first surfaced, most brands could guess the way customers were feeling. When a crisis hits, humans are immediately looking for help, support and relief – they aren’t concerned with fancy platform upgrades or product features. But what about as we move out of the crisis period?  What are customers looking for as we move into recovery? As a society, we are embarking on truly uncharted territory, and brands know they need to continue supporting, evolving and communicating with customers in a way that resonates. In the new ‘empathy economy’, the secret weapon lies within your customer feedback and your brand’s ability to turn those insights into action as quickly as possible.

Customer Feedback is Crucial in the Empathy Economy 

The definition of “empathy” is “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” Empathy is not about two-way communication, it is simply about listening and understanding. Thus, the ability to hear what your customers are saying, truly understand their needs, and find a solution to meet their evolving expectations is quickly becoming the most critical business function. 

We’ve seen Australian brands turn off their VoC programs after seeing NPS scores drop. At a time when businesses should be listening to customers more than ever, many brands feel overwhelmed by the seemingly negative information and stop listening to customers all together. 

On the other hand, we’ve been inspired by Australian brands like The NRMA who have used information sources across the entire business to monitor and make decisions. The VoC team has implemented a Coronavirus text analytics category and is updating senior management twice a week, calling out references to COVID-19 within VoC trackers including critical areas of the business like roadside assistance and Thrifty car rentals. The team has also built a specific “Coronavirus” dashboard to monitor comments as they come through. Overall, the tool acts as a cross-check function for business decisions to ensure that opportunities to serve the customer better during this challenging time are not missed.

For Actionable Insights, Move from Past-Tense to Forward-Thinking Survey Questions

Historically, the true value of VoC programs has remained ambiguous due to the quality of insights. We know that the most impactful insights are those that give clear direction to the business and drive a significant uplift in the customer’s experience. The best insights are those that are based in solid research that encourage C-Suite leadership teams to stand up and pay attention. Unfortunately, most programs fall short when it comes to actionable program insights. 

In order to see actionable insights, brands need to shift the mentality of CX as an indication of past performance, to a forward-thinking voice that can shape business strategy. One of the quickest ways to do this is by asking survey questions in present and future tense

In the past tense, survey questions look like “how did we do?” or “how was your experience 0-10?” Of course, there is a valuable place for types of questions by helping businesses learn from past mistakes. However, these past-tense questions can’t help your brand navigate economic uncertainty in the here and now.

Instead, transform your survey using forward-thinking questions. Instead of asking customers “how could we have served you better?” replace these with “how would you like us to serve you better in the future?” The latter question reframes the customer mindset and prompts them to feed back richer text verbatim. Using text analytics to categorise customer feedback, your business will have ideas and insights based on empirical evidence that will help drive your brand forward.

Brands can also ask customers how they plan to behave in the future. After the government announced new guidelines, we saw super funds across ANZ asked its members whether they were planning to take advantage of the $10,000 early access scheme. The insight from these forward-thinking survey questions allowed super funds to make better financial planning decisions. Ask your customers what they anticipate their needs to be, how they would like to receive brand messages and when they will need support. These kinds of actionable insights will inform your business roadmap and propel your brand forward.

Prompt Survey Respondents to Give Richer Feedback through Text Analytics

Increasing open-text verbatim is one of the most powerful ways to get actionable insights from customer feedback. The text analytics capability is an AI-driven approach that encourages respondents to expand on their survey answers. When the respondent gives feedback that is too short like “bad experience,” the platform function prompts the consumer with a message that says “can you tell us a bit more about your experience?.” The text analytics feature collects verbatim at scale, it can be overlaid with emotion and sentiment analysis, categorised into custom categories bespoke to your business and empowers your customers to answer freely.  It is through this capability that your team can discover valuable insights that can be fed back to the business – the kind of insight that  drives business strategy. These powerful customer insights are the key to running feedback from an indicator of past performance into research into future customer requirements.

Allow Your Customers to Get in Touch With You Wherever, Whenever 

The way consumers are communicating and interacting with companies has shifted and many VoC programs have not kept up pace. For example, we have seen that website intercept surveys, which traditionally had a low response rate, have in some cases tripled their response rate in the last 6 weeks.  The technology now exists to understand customer data in its native form. Move beyond calculating metrics to deriving deep meaning from the natural conversations customers are having through open-ended comments, social media channels, contact centers, video, voice and even images. 

In essence, the very premise of NPS attempts to reduce the human experience to a simplified number. And at a larger scale, structured surveys simplify feedback, often removing the human element of a complex customer experience. The future of feedback is in allowing customers and employees to communicate whenever, wherever, and however they want, preserving that data in its native form, and then applying advanced analytics to uncover the intelligence that will drive true change in the business.

In an environment where the ability to listen to and truly understand your customers has become essential, companies with a mature VoC program have the capability to not just survive, but thrive into the post-pandemic economy.  By moving your focus to the future tense, increasing open-ended response and by widening the listening posts, CX leaders can give their organisations the best chance in the new ‘empathy economy.” There is no better time for CX practitioners to reinvent their CX programs and lead their organisations forward into the unknown.

To learn more about how to evolve your CX program, check out our webinar “Now Is the Time to Assess & Reinvent Your CX Program” for free here!

Simon is Sales Director for InMoment in ANZ.  Prior to joining InMoment he spent 10 years helping CX professionals all over the world network, learn and improve as Executive Director at IQPC.  Outside of work he is a keen cyclist and squash player.

About Author

Simon Benns Director of Banking, Financial Services and Insurance

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