In this, my last column of the year, I sat down to write the customary wrap of the year’s big consumer stories: the Ford Kuga fires, the revelations of the National Consumer Commission’s timeshare industry investigation; the discovery that FNB’s safety deposit boxes were anything but, and retailers loading their customers’ accounts with illegal extra fees.
And it occurred to me that empathy – or the lack of it – lies at the heart of our engagement with companies, and with each other.
If a company doesn’t instil in its people – from the boardroom to the marketing team, to the people who man the social media accounts, the check-out tills and the check-in counters – the need to put themselves in the shoes of the customer in every situation, they’ll never win the public’s hearts, and sooner or later that will have an effect on their bottom line.
Yes, price will always be a major purchasing decision factor, but numerous studies have revealed that consumers make emotional buying decisions.
“Service is a people business, which makes it a moving target,” says Andrea Gevers, CEO of South Africa’s largest independent market research company, Ask Afrika.
“To be successful the sector needs to look at what is happening in society and to approach things from the consumers’ point of view.
“We’ve seen that organisations that obsess about themselves or their immediate competitors, will only ever edge forward, they will never leapfrog.”
The upside of an overwhelming number of e-mails flooding my inbox daily is that consumers let me into their worlds, allow me to learn from their mistakes, and gain some understanding into why they made them – and how companies made them feel.
“Hire for empathy and train for the rest” is a piece of advice often directed at corporates, and it’s a good start, but empathy without the ability and willingness to deliver a service is a little hollow.
We want someone to feel our pain, to really “get” how devastating it is to learn that the flight that was supposed to get us to our destination has been delayed – and that it will be too late to make that funeral or important meeting.
But we want more than a sorry – we want them to fix the problem, and as quickly as possible.
Earlier this year the Harvard Business review published a story based on a global, cross-industry study of 1440 customer service agents.
They found that while people profiled as empathisers were most often hired for that role, the ones rated most effective by consumers were the ones with personalities least likely to see them hired for that job – the ones they called “controllers”.
“Our structured interviews revealed that they are driven to deliver fast, easy service and are comfortable exerting their strong personalities in order to demonstrate their expertise,” the writers said.
“They describe themselves as “take charge” people; confident decision makers.
“As one explained, “I like to take control of the situation and guide people.”
That’s certainly the kind of person who those of us told that our early morning flight had been delayed – and then “indefinitely delayed” – could have used at OR Tambo airport last month.
Instead we were left at the mercy of ground crew members who were totally lacking in empathy or the ability to make a plan and the fall-out was devastating.
And here’s something many companies fail to grasp, too. The little things count – a lot.
Consumers judge a company – what it stands for, how professional it is and how it views its customers – at every touch point: the Twitter response, the billboard advert, the events it chooses to sponsor, and all its official correspondence.
I was involved in two lively Twitter conversations in recent weeks about small things with a big impact: bad corporate grammar and spelling; and shortchanging.
“If a flyer/advert has a misspelling, I’m not buying from that store or supplier. I’m petty like that,” tweeted Sindisiwe van Zyl.
“I totally relate,” @ItsFifiM responded.
“First thought that comes to mind is ‘How many people saw and approved this advert?’ Can’t trust that company.”
And Kathy Paterson tweeted: “If you want me to spend my hard earned money, respect me enough to run a spell check.”
And then the small change issue. Karin d’Orville tweeted: “Mr Price Sport, next time a cashier thinks it’s just okay not to give me my 10 cents change, I will go to SAPS and charge him or her with theft…”
Fatima Monga was among those who chimed in: “I had a cashier from a @home tell me, sorry, but we don’t have R2 change and wouldn’t make any effort to get it. Obviously nobody will sell you any item if you are even 50c short.”
Someone who can’t get that it’s not okay to make the customer pay for a lack of small change in the till needs an urgent intervention, because that’s clearly not all they’re not getting.
So here’s to inspired, meaningful win-win connections between companies and their customers in the new year.
A little empathy for those who have to deal with often unreasonable customers works wonders too.