Expert Interview: The Importance of Empathy in Customer Success

By February 28, 2019Blog

We sat down with Emma Rose Snyder, Customer Empathy Specialist at Toast, to discuss the importance of customer empathy, how to measure it and what tips and best practices she has for instilling customer empathy in your company culture. Let’s dive in!

How would you define empathy as it relates to customer success, and why is it important to have?

My working definition of customer empathy is the ability to feel what it’s like to spend a day in your customers’ shoes — being able to experience the holistic context of their daily lived realities (the good, the bad, and the ugly).

Customer empathy is feeling with your customers rather than feeling for them–and it’s imperative for companies to ensure that their employees (especially those on customer front-lines) have had ample opportunities to do exactly that.

From a customer success standpoint, we can’t fully understand our customers’ definitions of success, motivations, or hardships until we establish a human connection with them that allows for vulnerability, honesty, and trust. This is nearly impossible to accomplish without demonstrating empathy for the customer.

When I previously worked at a tech company, I was in a customer-facing role supporting digital marketing agencies. It was easy to connect to the customer’s lived reality since there was a lot of overlap in our daily experiences. In theory, we both sat behind a desk all day (or stood behind fancy standing desks), felt the neck and shoulder strain from hunching over a computer for hours, and went through the new first world rite of passage of needing to purchase a pair of blue light-blocking glasses from screen overuse.

I was able to empathize with this type of customer because there was so much common ground in our work environments and stressors. I could day-in and day-out viscerally experience what my customers were experiencing.

This is not the case when it comes to the Toast customer base (or any customer base that works outside of the SaaS industry). From the vantage point of sitting behind a desk 9-5, many of the realities of working in the restaurant industry are invisible to us. This is why it’s imperative to the success of a business to offer internal programs and opportunities to make customer realities more visible to employees.

How does Toast gauge/measure customer empathy?

To begin gauging your employee’s customer empathy, I recommend starting with a “temperature check” of your employee’s shared experiences with customers. I suggest surveying your customer base about any previous experience in your customers’ industry. You can call this your “customer savviness” metric, and continue to monitor and maintain the data set by surveying each new hire class that joins your company.

By beginning to learn about your employee base, you can start to establish what customer empathy is already in place, as well as identify where the gaps are to target through internal training and empathy initiatives.

Gauging this collective IQ of the industry and daily lived realities of your customers is crucial to avoid making assumptions about what your employees already know (and don’t know) about your customers’ worlds. It’s easy to make these inaccurate assumptions (in Toast’s case, “well everyone has worked a restaurant job in high school!”). To avoid these assumptions, I challenge you to pause and study your employee base as the crucial first step to building up customer empathy.

How do you go about instilling empathy in your company culture?

In 2018, we started implementing various customer-centric initiatives to foster increased empathy for our customers. The first major program was a Restaurant Empathy Training course, launched in June of 2018. The training is an hour-and-a-half in-person session geared toward boosting both IQ and EQ for our customers’ worlds. Since then, Toast has led 26 of those training sessions across three of our offices (including Dublin!) and we have trained nearly 400 employees. The session will soon be added to our new hire orientation experience, to drive home that we are customer-centric from day one. Something we highlight in the training is a group discussion around how to make the empathy training actionable once the group returns to their day jobs. We have them capture ideas for how to be more empathic in their daily role immediately after the training session to ensure the learning doesn’t just live in a training bubble.

To compliment the empathy training program, we launched a variety of one-off internal events throughout the year to keep customers top of mind and foster connectedness outside of our employee’s daily roles or typical interactions with customers. These events ranged from writing greeting cards to customers, a customer appreciation day, and hosting customer panels at company-wide events. We like to both include and support our customers whenever possible. For instance for our holiday party this year we broke-up into groups to dine out at over 60 customer restaurants spanning the country.

What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone who wants to conduct customer empathy training in their company?

Based on my experience of designing, launching, and scaling a customer empathy training, my recommendations for launching a successful program include:

  • Make the training session as engaging as possible: Design simulation exercises that get the learners out of “teacher/lecture” mode
  • Pilot the training to get executive buy-in and sponsorship: In the initial sessions, I invited a key list of stakeholders and team-leads to help evangelize the program. I was fortunate to have our VP of Engineering declare the training mandatory for the entire engineering organization and an exec-level priority. “Empathy Training” can carry a cringe-worthy stigma for many, so make sure you have cross-functional allies advocating for the training.
  • Constantly collect feedback from your learners about if the training course is service their needs, and make alterations accordingly (demonstrating empathy for your internal customers!)

Fun question: What’s one thing about customer empathy that people in customer success need to know?

Your customers are humans, too! Surprise! When I was on the customer front-lines as a Restaurant Success Manager (our branding of a Customer Success Manager), it was easy to only view customers as two-dimensional salesforce records, phone numbers, and email addresses. It made a huge difference in my understanding of our customers’ worlds and EQ to meet face-to-face with many of my customers in the context of their restaurant environments. Learning about my customers’ families, vacations, pets, and origin stories behind their restaurant operations established positive working relationships rooted in human connection. These resulted in trust, vulnerability, and ultimately better issue resolution.

Since it’s an increasingly rare privilege in SaaS companies to be local to your customers, here are some ideas for how to establish those human connections from afar and get to know your customers as “whole humans” rather than transactional stakeholders:

  • Research your customers online – learn about their career trajectories, their accomplishments, any positive press or awards they have received.
  • Be naturally curious about their lives outside of your product when speaking with them. Simply asking “Tell me about your day” goes a long way.
  • Use video conferencing tools whenever possible with customers.
  • Leverage employees in roles that frequently interact with customers in the field to capture some of their unique stories and broadcast them internally.

What steps does your organization take to measure customer empathy, and how do you instill it in your own company culture? Share with us in the comments below! Have questions about customer empathy? Head over to our Success Masters Community to chat with like-minded customer success leaders.

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