The irony of the machine learning age is that technologies like machine learning, big data, analytics and IoT could eventually make us more ‘human’ and ‘empathetic’. For this, organizations need to commit to transforming empathy into tangible action hinged on data-driven insights.

Making empathy tangible transforms organizations

Humans are wired to connect and feel empathy. However, in a business setting, empathy isn’t just an emotion, or a nicety. It is a critical business skill that can directly impact outcomes. Dealing with hundreds of customers every month, I have realized that ‘understanding’ each other is becoming key to establishing successful business relationships. In a corporate setting, empathy gives us the ability to get into our customer’s shoes, feel their pain, and take necessary action. And intelligent enterprises prioritize this empathy with customers over positioning their products and solution.

Beyond lip service

I feel most businesses now think they need to get more empathic towards their customers. However few truly grasp the potential of empathy and seldom convert their thinking into doing. While the discussion surrounding empathy remains hinged on gathering data and insights, most businesses don’t effectively convert those empathy insights into tangible benefits for our customers. Using insights to truly understand, connect and engage with customers allows enterprises to convert empathy into action.

When we look at empathy in the context of technology customers, it gets more complicated, since technology and emotions are seldom visualized in the same frame. We see vendors pushing solutions without understanding client problems or concerns. What customers are seeking is simplicity. They need handholding to navigate the technology landscape. They need digital transformation, but one that addresses their unique business concerns.

Let’s empathize with our customers

So where do we really begin? We do that by truly listening; gathering data and analyzing it. And then, we mine it for insights. We identify and relate to the customer’s challenges. And take appropriate action.

Taking the first step towards empathy does not have to be costly or large scale. A company can promote empathetic behavior in small ways. Lets say you are a bank and you want to empower your retail staff to be more empathetic towards customers. A simple initiative can be creating a small fund or cash pool that staff can dip into to engage with customers at their discretion. Sending flowers on a birthday or condolences during bereavement are all straightforward examples of how empathy can extend business relationships beyond just business.

AirBnb is a classic example of an organization-wide approach to empathy. Despite its success, the company realized that homeowners, who were a critical part of its value chain, were at a high-risk of damage to their homes and property, after a series of such incidents early on. The empathetic action, of offering a free $1 million insurance policy to all Airbnb hosts was a courageous decision, but helped restore trust and catapult the company to a disruptive leadership position.

But empathy is not always about ‘reading the signs’. While insights can be helpful, intelligent enterprises are intuitive about discovering customer paint points, often even before the customer is aware of them. The iPhone is seen as the highest expression of intuitive empathy. In the words of Steve Job’s, “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”.

In essence, the need of the hour is to adopt our customer’s business as our own and then see the gaps and challenges they face. The goal is to create for them a personalized technology strategy and a step-by-step roadmap that can help them get to where they need to go, from where they are today.

Data is the new asset class

Data has emerged as a new asset class over recent years, and data-driven insights are being seen as powerful engines for driving empowerment, development, change, and empathy. However, the irony of the machine learning age is that technologies like machine learning or blockchain or big data could eventually end up teaching us empathy. Whichever way we look at it, it is important to consider that while technology driven insights can help corporations lead with consistent and informed empathy, they cannot take the place of an authentic dialogue and connect with customers. Truly innovative companies do not depend only on data to guide their next disruption. Instead they pay close and obsessive attention to their customers, and their changing needs.

Customer empathy lies at the core of the machine learning experience

Lets talk about AI/machine learning as an example of technologies that can help turn empathy into action. How does one ensure that machine learning is equipped with adequate human emotional intelligence and artificial empathy to yield real empathic insights? Artificial empathy can deliver ‘real’ empathetic insights only if a true desire to understand the customer exists at the core of. Which brings us back to the point that technology can only serve as an enabler of empathy hinged on an honest respect and value of customers. Charlene Li, a force to reckon with in the field of social media and technologies, sums it beautifully when she says “If empathy sits at the center of your AI strategy, you’ll understand when customers want to be left alone or that your product/service wouldn’t be a good fit. That respect for a customer comes from the artificial empathy that you build into your artificial intelligence”.

Customers today need technology as an enabler of solving their business problems. And as providers of that digital transformation, intelligent enterprises need to increase their empathy quotient. We can use technology to guide and build that empathy. We can use traditional interpersonal skills to hone that sympathy. But most importantly, we need to start acting on it.

Building Empathy doesn’t only make you a wise person, or a successful company. It also puts you in a unique position where you can truly help your customers.

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