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19 Aug. 2013 | Comments (0)

We've heard the rallying cry for the past few years for companies to "be customer-centric" and to transform into "a social business." But what does that really mean?

As I've said before, It's hard for most organizations to come to any real consensus because each part of the company only sees one small sliver of the customer, a sliver that comes with different meanings and measurement: a segmentation profile in marketing, website traffic for the digital team, "call volume" to the customer service team, a "conversion" to the sales team, or an "impression" to the advertising team. The real risk here is that no one sees the customer as an actual human being.

But the challenge the corporation really needs to answer — listening to and understanding the customer more deeply — can start with the concept of empathy: encouraging employees to put aside their particular duties with the company and put themselves in their customer's shoes.

This process need not require deeply specialized skills: it can be as simple as it sounds. The problem is, professional training has distanced us from fundamental principles of human communication. We now tend to focus on empirical data from survey results and analytics or customer insights from feedback forms and focus groups constrained by what the company knows to ask.

And, just as challenging, the differences in each of our professional trainings as we look across disciplines within any organization means that people think and talk differently about their relationship with that customer. Even more confusing, we are often using the same words for somewhat different purposes from department to department.

As a result, empathy with the customer, which is among the simplest of principles, can be among the most challenging to master, especially for employees managing communication with a community to which they've never actually belonged themselves.

At our agency, Peppercomm, this core philosophy of listening and empathy has transformed the way we work. We strive to see ourselves as beholden not just to the clients paying us for our consulting but equally so to the audiences they seek to reach, who give their time and who ultimately determine the success of our clients' businesses.

We've largely accomplished this through putting a deeper focus on helping our clients see the world from the eyes of their various audiences. We make it a priority to think about the communications experience of various stakeholders at every step along the way.

Thinking this way is a challenge. We still find ourselves accepting assumptions passed along by clients about their audiences without thinking them through from the audience's perspective. Occasionally, we'll catch one another talking about the customer as a number, or a profile, or a concept instead of an actual human being. And we sometimes still realize that we have created a communications strategy or drafted content more intent on capturing what everyone within the company would like to communicate without much thought as to what audiences actually want or need to know.

Customer empathy is a goal we'll never claim to "master," because it requires constantly challenging ourselves to work as a team from the common place of the perspective of the customer, the employee, the journalist, or any other constituency. But we pride ourselves on holding it up as our rallying cry and our filter on a daily basis.

As all of our companies continue acclimating to the realities of today's communications environment, it's imperative that those of us who see listening and empathy as a critical determinant of organizational health make it a company priority. We must all ensure our daily work reflects these principles. And we have to spread that message, both vertically and horizontally, within our organizations (and, for those of us in professional services, inside those companies we work with).

It will likely be frustrating and occasionally disheartening, especially since it seems so deceptively simple. But it is vital work, not just for the sake of our companies but for those audiences we serve. Only when all employees, from the C-suite to the interns, work to truly understand the world from their customer's points of view can we truly call ourselves "customer-centric" and a "social business."


This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 07/17/2013.

View our complete listing of Mission&Purpose@Work blogs.

  • About the Author:Sam Ford

    Sam Ford

    Sam Ford is Director of Digital Strategy at Peppercomm and co-author, with Henry Jenkins and Joshua Green, of Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture.

    Full Bio | More from Sam Ford


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