The Subtle art of giving a damn (otherwise known as Empathy in times of Crisis)

Sarah Lubbe, Head of Sales and Marketing, Smoke Customer Intelligence (PTY) Ltd

A constricting economy. Consumer spending under pressure. Recession. Pandemic. Unemployment. Liquidation.  These phrases that have become part of our daily vocabulary and for the most part, are unlikely to disappear any time soon.  

Our organisations are undoubtedly facing tough times – with some industries reporting as much as a 75% decline in profits. This tension and anxiety trickle down from the very top to employees at the front-line of customer experience, and this is perhaps where one of the most significant challenges lie for those seeking to maintain exceptional customer service despite the disruptions.   

Empathy, by definition, is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. A primary yardstick of in times of crisis will be how a customer evaluates a brands ability to meet their needs with empathy, care and concern. More than ever, customers need extra information, guidance and support as they navigate a new way of being. They want resources they can trust that make them feel safe and offer support with no expectation of a sale in return. It is vitally important during these times that employees on all levels of the organisations are empowered to not only provide exceptional service but to do so in a way that creates understanding and an emotional connection between your organisation and your customers  In other words, now is the time to deliver value to customers with no profit objective in mind. This starts with empathy.  

The cornerstone of infusing your customer experience with empathy is to stay in contact with them. Not only in a marketing or sales way but to offer genuine support and ask them how they are doing. Many organisations have already stepped up with empathy for their customers. An excellent example of this is Ford’s “Built to Lend a Hand” campaign which outlines initiatives including payment relief and credit support. Unilever is another example, donating free sanitizer, soap, bleach and food worth €100 million to the world’s neediest. Showing that you genuinely care for your customers, and enabling your front-line staff to do the same, may not increase revenue in the short term, but it is likely to gain loyalty over the long run. 

The flip side of the act of caring is the critical aspect of feedback. Listening to what your customers have to say about your brand, your actions and their transactional experiences with you is always essential, but during times of crisis, this data is vital to making sustainable business decisions.  With over 100 countries under lockdown, billions of consumers have changed their habits almost overnight. 

Overall online penetration in China increased by 15–20%. In Italy, e-commerce sales for consumer products rose by 81% in a single week, creating significant supply-chain bottlenecks. Organisations across the world have had to adapt to digitally transacting – with both their customers and employees. This means using an interaction, that by its very nature is low-touch – meaning that there is a higher need for a superior experience to create the same sense of empathy within the hearts of consumers. 

Now is not the time for complex terms & conditions, or unmanned chatbots or difficult to navigate sales processes. The key within the digital world is availability, functionality and indeed, the ability to interact with a human being when the need arises.  At some point, the current crisis will abate, but there is a high likelihood that consumer trends will be forever impacted. The economic impact is predicted to linger for far longer than the virus itself, and cost-cutting is inevitable, but this should not be at the expense of excellent customer experience. Infusing your actions and transactions with a healthy dose of empathy with have a lasting impact on customer experience.  

Companies that provide excellent (and empathetic) customer and employee experiences today will come out much stronger than their counterparts when this crisis is over. 

About the author
Sarah Lubbe