Most people in most organisations are in a fairly unenviable situation – their organisation is switching on to “customer-centricity”, yet they have absolutely no direct interaction with customers to provide insight into their actions and decisions.
Add to this the fact that those working at the coal-face where the organisation directly interacts with customers are often the most down-trodden, worst-paid and distrusted within their organisation – and one doesn’t have a recipe for success.
Those fortunate enough to engage with customers and frontline staff often feel they are swimming against the tide of organisational opinion. The whimsy of anecdotal qualitative customer insight doesn’t always play well with the rational business heads who have quantitative data and expertise on their side – and crucially no personal interaction with customers.
In this situation some organisations are drawn to personas, or other similar techniques to carry the flag for customers and/or frontline staff, but ask any good qualitative researcher and they will squirm at the thought of personas as a tool for raising empathy and understanding within an organisation.
It would be tempting to draw battle lines and slowly (or quickly) grow frustrated with the inability of the other camp to actually understand the problem. Given such a situation it becomes easy to understand why some “customer-centricity” initiatives fail to deliver on their early promise – and why many working in customer-centred design grow disillusioned with their organisations inability to translate customer insights into action.
How might we build organisational empathy?
One approach we’re seeing get traction over the last few years are organisational empathy programs. An organisational empathy program is distinct from usual qualitative research in intent: whereas most qualitative research is centred around the interests of a specific project or program of work, organisational empathy programs have the explicit intent of helping build empathy and understanding across the breadth of the organisation – and they do this iteratively as part of an ongoing program to close the gap between decision-makers and those impacted by the decisions.
Organisational empathy programs can take various forms. Ideally they involve direct interaction between staff (particularly leaders, influencers and decision-makers) and customers, but there are many variations on this core premise that can help empathy programs scale and work within any organisational budget.
Common variations include:
- Sessions to provide direct interaction and structured conversation between decision-makers and customers.
- Immersions to enable decision-makers to spend time at the frontline with frontline staff and customers.
- Documentary films to bring the richness of real-life experiences into the organisation.
- Daily activities to ensure that all staff talk about and connect their actions to customer outcomes.
The key thing here is that these shouldn’t be one-off, standalone activities. They should be part of a co-ordindated, ongoing empathy program. At Meld, as part of our organisation design offering, we offer a range of services to help build organisational empathy and understanding.
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