Empathy and Innovation

BusinessWeek’s Customer Service Champs supports my plan for innovation through empathy that I outlined previously: Everyone – EVERYONE – will go through the process that their “clients” go through, on a regular basis.

But new research from Katzenbach Partners offers an updated metaphor. The firm stresses the importance of an “empathy engine,” which looks at the role of the entire organization, including middle and senior management, in providing great service. If that engine is thought of as a heart, “the whole company has to pump the customer through it,” says Traci Entel, a principal at Katzenbach Partners who recently studied 13 leading service companies’ best practices. “It starts much further back, with how they organize themselves, and how they place value on thinking about the customer.”

Helping employees become more empathetic with customers was a common focus among the brands on our list. For instance, USAA, whose home and auto insurance are only open to military members and their families, serves new employees MREs (meals ready to eat) during orientation so they can better identify with military life. All frontline workers at Cabela’s, the outfitter famous for its massive retail shrines to hunting, fishing, and camping, partake in a free product-loaner program. Staffers are encouraged to borrow any of the company’s more than 200,000 products for up to two months, so long as they write a review that’s shared via a companywide software system when the goods are returned. That’s not only a perk for employees; it also helps them better empathize with product issues customers might have.

But few places make empathizing with customers quite as luxurious an experience as Four Seasons Hotels. At most of its properties, the final piece of the seven-step employee orientation is something the chain’s executives call a “familiarization stay” or “fam trip.” Each worker in these hotels, from housekeepers to front-desk clerks, is given a free night’s stay for themselves and a guest, along with free dining.

While there, employees are asked to grade the hotels on such measures as the number of times the phone rings when calling room service to how long it takes to get items to a room. “We bill it as a training session,” says Ellen Dubois du Bellay, vice-president of learning and development. “They’re learning what it looks like to receive service from the other side.”


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