Everyone talks about being customer centric and developing better and deeper customer relationships, yet few become truly outstanding. Here I’m going to explore the key inputs to developing customer intimacy: the use of imagination, insight and empathy.

As a trusted consultant to companies, I need to see and understand my client’s world better than they do. I need to understand their business and their customer’s businesses, so I can help my clients see the world through their customer’s eyes. I need to collect and weigh up all the data – hard data and soft data, facts and figures, emotions and behaviours – and imagine what it must be like to be my client’s customer, doing what they’re doing.

Customers know they have problems but asking them about those problems and designing solutions to fix them is missing the point. During my many years as a business consultant and as a therapist practising transactional analysis, I’ve seen that people often don’t know what their real problems are. They know where the immediate pain is, but this is often just a symptom of the real, much deeper concern. We all want a quick fix but it takes time, patience and perseverance to uncover the heart of the issue. Until you get to that point, any attempt at offering or designing a solution may just be applying a Band-Aid to a broken bone.

Really getting under the skin of a customer issue means looking at all the data and experiencing what that problem is like for them – smelling, touching and tasting what their environment is like and how they operate within it. That means immersing yourself in the context of the problem and using empathy to imagine and feel what it must be like.

Empathy broadly takes three different forms. These are:

• Cognitive empathy – I know what you are thinking
• Emotional empathy – I feel what you are feeling
• Compassionate empathy – Acting upon what the other person is thinking and feeling, with their interest at heart, not yours

The technical term for investigating this is ethnographic research. It’s what social scientists and anthropologists use when studying how people behave. It’s invaluable in business because whatever the task, people are still people, and we all behave in certain ways. At Futurecurve, we use a mixture of ethnography combined with Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis. This gives us insights about tacit knowledge – the subtle cues that people have trouble articulating because it’s often in their subconscious mind.

Respecting your customers
The other important part to this is respecting customers and not believing that you know more than they do about their issues.

I was talking with a £2bn turnover company last week, who have designed their customer experience strategy – what they want customers to experience at every major stage of interaction with them. I was staggered when I asked what types of research they had done to arrive at this and they said, “None. We’re building it from our own knowledge of what our customers do and want.” It will be very interesting to see what happens and how their customers react when this is implemented. At worst this is extreme arrogance. At best it’s a lack of respect for their customers.

One of our clients, a global software company, was developing a much cheaper software tool that could be sold by resellers, rather than the usual high-end products that their own sales force sold. They had researched this product for about three years and were convinced that a cheap and cheerful, cut down version of one of their key products would suffice for this market. They also had a very dismissive attitude to the resellers they were targeting for this product.

We did some research for them and found that although the resellers were very canny about lower prices, they were actually very demanding about quality, the software specification and how they were being treated, in a one-down position, by our client. They felt taken for granted and undervalued, and that our client saw them as just a transactional sales channel. Our client hadn’t realised this because they assumed that low price was the only issue. In fact, although the issues included low price, more emotional factors were also key, such as how the resellers were managed and treated and the software’s performance, all of which our client had previously dismissed as unimportant.

As a consequence, our shocked client made some additions to the software, reorganised its delivery team, engaged with the resellers at a senior level and formed true strategic partnerships with a selection of them.

How to develop true customer intimacy
If your organisation wants to be truly customer centric and develop greater customer intimacy, what should you do? Leading organisations will:

• Cultivate Empathy as a skill, helping their people to understand the importance of empathy and how to apply it successfully.

• Use empathy to imagine what their customers think and feel. This stops the organisation believing that its view of the world is the only one that’s valid. What concerns you as an organisation may be a million miles from the issues your customers are wrestling with.

• Use empathy to probe and dig to uncover the real issues. Having determined what your customer’s immediate pain is, consider the underlying cause – the broken bone beneath the obvious surface cut.

• Develop Insights by seeing what others don’t. This needs to be based on robust customer research, to ensure that your insights are grounded in reality and not just your guesses about what your customers want.

• Use Imagination to develop the best, most insightful solutions. As my friend David England tells me, “I heard a story about Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Before he designed the Clifton Suspension Bridge he had himself hauled across the Clifton gorge in a barrel. He experienced the gap for himself before considering how it might be bridged. With this experience of the gorge, he was able to conceive the bridge in his imagination. So what is more real, the external form of the bridge or the concept upon which that form relies? Certainly the concept has stood the test of time. Everything begins in the imagination, even the Clifton Suspension Bridge.”

How empathetic are you?

If empathy is key to customer intimacy, how empathetic are you? The following is a selection of questions from common empathy tests:

• When you see someone who isn’t as well off as you, do you feel bad and worry for them?
• Do you get emotional unexpectedly, such as when you hear about a distant tragedy?
• When someone you know upsets you, do you try to put yourself in their shoes and understand why they behaved that way?
• Do you enjoy imagining what life would be like as someone else, such as your boss or a friend?

The more strongly you say yes to questions like these, the more empathetic you will be. If this doesn’t sound like you, you may need to work on your empathizing skills, an increasingly important skill in business today.