This article is co-written by Adam Grant (GLS 2015) and Erin Henkel, portfolio director at IDEO’s Chicago studio.
We all know how important it is for an organization’s leaders and employees to empathize with its customers. Evidence shows that when people understand and care about those they serve, they solve problems more creatively and provide better service.
What’s the best way to cultivate empathy?
The standard answer is to spend more time with customers. For example, leaders at IBM, Medtronic, and Microsoft have sent their people out to meet customers and see their products in use. But recently at IDEO, we’ve been encouraging companies to go a step further. Instead of just getting to know the customer, we want employees to become the customer.
The idea is to create an embodied experience for employees, rather than just a conversation. People learn much more when they are physically engaged in an activity, not just talking about it. But you can’t just take employees through the actual customer experience. They already know it like the back of their hands; it’s too easy for them to get defensive and justify the way they already do things.
Instead, we bring people into different contexts—removed from typical day-to-day company operations—that can serve as a metaphor for what customers experience and therefore jolt employees into a more empathetic stance.
Take our work with Consumers Energy in Michigan. The company had noticed that low-income customers weren’t paying utility bills—even in the middle of the frigid Midwest winter. When they asked us to help them figure out why, we spent time with Consumers Energy users in Flint and quickly saw that the billing process was too opaque, with too many unexpected charges. We could have simply reported this to the company’s executive team or brought them in to have the same discussions we’d had. But we decided our message would have more impact if we gave them a taste of the customer experience.
When they arrived for one milestone meeting, we greeted them in the lobby, gave each person a handful of Goldfish crackers and told them to make a simple choice: either take the stairs or the elevator to the seventh floor. Those who rode the elevator were charged three goldfish at the top, while those who took the stairs didn’t have to pay anything. Throughout the day, we laid on more choices with unexpected “charges.” By lunch time, one team member didn’t have enough Goldfish to “pay” for his food. And when we charged people to pay to sit down at a meeting, another team member had to borrow Goldfish to get a chair.
At the end of the day, the group had a richer understanding of how difficult it would be for people with limited resources to maneuver through their system. This empathy experience galvanized them to create an innovative pilot billing program called Clear Control, which features bi-weekly billing periods, daily text updates on usage and bill amounts, and personalized home audits for efficiency.
Another example comes from Carnival Cruise Line. The company wanted to reimagine its vacation planning and booking process, which had been especially painful for rookie cruise-goers and those managing group reservations. To bring to life the guest’s perspective on the problem, we brainstormed stories where we saw similar challenges and landed on a familiar but challenging journey with a group of characters, conflicts and confusing rules: The Wizard of Oz. If her dream destination is to get home to Kansas, then Dorothy has to book it like a cruise.
We created a game with another token-based payment system, and employee characters as Dorothy had to advance through four stations aligned with stages of the Carnival booking process. About two dozen sales and service agents, managers and execs participated—alternately laughing or complaining, shouting with impatience or cheering in victory. As in all our empathy exercises, we ended with a team debriefing. The team sat in a circle and talked about what had been fun and what had been frustrating. We then dove deeper into a discussion around the roles, rules, similarities to their work, and what they wanted to do to improve the guest experience. Doing this with cross-functional groups across different levels in the organization makes it easier for everyone to speak up, spot opportunities and make collective change across silos.
Carnival has since piloted a new team-based call center structure to create a more unified experience for guests and invested in a new digital dashboard for agents, which visually tracks each customer’s journey. Early signs have been positive, with increases in sales conversion and first call resolution.
It takes time and energy to design these experiences, and they can be messy in practice. But we’ve found them to be a powerful way to ensure that the people in your organization truly understand their customers.
Here’s how to do it.
Step 1: Gather insights
What is broken, frustrating, surprising or uncomfortable for your customer?
Step 2: Get outside
What industry, experience or story has similar themes and problems? Generate a range of options and pick the one that resonates.
Step 3: Get creative
Make, build, simulate, act out and play through the overlapping moments of your real business problem and the analogous experience that you have identified. What is the minimum viable experience that connects the two for people? Design that.
Step 4: Invite a group of people to go through the exercise and to talk about it
Usually, the actual experience is no more than an hour or two—that’s long enough for people to go through a wide range of emotions—and then we leave at least half an hour to unpack how people felt and what they noticed. The goal is for everyone to walk away with new ideas and discrete actions to take, and a plan for communicating their insights to the rest of the organization.
It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Sometimes we generate ideas to address our own needs. But in many cases, it’s the necessity of others that drives us to innovate. Empathy isn’t optional in problem-solving. It can drive creative breakthroughs.