Insightful takes on scaling your business

Every c-suite leader needs to be a ‘Chief Empathy Officer’

Andy MacMillan
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Andy MacMillan

CEO, UserTestingAndy MacMillan is chief executive officer of UserTesting and oversees the strategic direction of the company. Before joining UserTesting, Andy was CEO of Act-On software and held several senior leader… (show all) Andy MacMillan is chief executive officer of UserTesting and oversees the strategic direction of the company. Before joining UserTesting, Andy was CEO of Act-On software and held several senior leadership positions at Salesforce, including chief operating officer of the products division and senior vice president and general manager of Data.com. Before Salesforce, Andy was vice president of product management at Oracle and vice president of product marketing at Stellent (acquired by Oracle.) He started his career as a software developer at EDS. Andy holds a B.A. from Michigan State University and an M.B.A. from the University of Edinburgh (Scotland.)

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In the digital age, when customers are more knowledgeable and have higher expectations and more choices than ever before, a company’s fortunes rest on its ability to tune into their feelings and create an emotional connection.

As vital as empathy is, however, it can be elusive in an app-driven world that tends to create distance between companies and their customers’ actual human experience. Compounding the challenge, many businesses now rely on data, rather than what they see and hear, to ascertain customer preferences. (More on that in a bit.)

Nevertheless, empathy remains the necessary starting point to understanding customers’ motivations, needs, desires, and behaviors, and it’s the secret sauce in delivering products and experiences that foster brand loyalty and propel the company ahead of competitors.

Empathy has become such a crucial business tool that a whopping 91 percent of CEOs surveyed for a Businesssolver report said they believe empathy is directly linked to a company‘s financial performance.

[Read: Don’t just hire the ‘best’ people — focus on diversity]

To me, it’s clear that company leaders need to go all in on empathy and make sure it is practiced daily inside the business. And by “company leaders,” I don’t mean just the CEO or CMO, but the entire C-suite. I propose every C-level executive should think of themselves as a “Chief Empathy Officer,” responsible for instilling this ethic into the company’s operations and culture — for the good of their employees, customers, and bottom-line.

Let’s take a look at a range of C-level roles and how each leader can help.

The CEO 

In the connected world, “just having satisfied customers isn’t good enough anymore,” author Ken Blanchard has observed. “If you really want a booming business, you have to create raving fans.” Achieving this starts at the top. In everything the CEO does – from hiring the senior team to setting the organizational culture to acting as the public face for the company – he or she must cultivate a delightful human experience as the business’ core value.

It can’t just be lip service. The CEO needs to make sure that all teams are able to see, hear, talk to, and deeply understand customers, and use those insights to optimize every facet of product design, development, and support.

For example, CEOs can require “empathy hours” in which people at all levels devote time to specific tasks that involve interacting with and better understanding customers. Whether it’s blocking off time on the weekly calendar to observe customers using the product or putting in some time at a customer support desk, these immersion hours can lead to insights – unavailable anywhere else – that build up intuitive understanding of customers’ desires and needs.

The CMO

We live in an age of data-driven marketing. Technologies such as big data and artificial intelligence are widely used to gain insights into customer trends and behaviors, and that’s great. However, all too often, data has become a proxy for the invaluable human insight that comes from listening and observing with empathy. Clickstream analytics, for example, may tell you what’s happening but not why.

A smart CMO, whose organization is usually the first touchpoint for any customer or potential one, in my opinion appreciates this distinction and drives the marketing teams to recognize that data simply isn’t enough to create great customer experiences. They demand a mindset of constantly stepping into customers’ shoes and insists on processes and technologies that understand customers by seeing, hearing, and talking to them directly.

Fast, constant, substantive human insights keep companies grounded in what customers really care about so they can serve their real needs. Today’s winning CMO adopts that as a guiding principle.

For example, CMOs and their teams can stop thinking in terms of personas. Companies have forever relied on these composite sketches – the likes of “the typical buyer is a 40-year-old married mom who drives an SUV – to define market segments. But does this really get to the heart of what customers think about, what they want, what keeps them up at night?

A smarter approach is to think of customers in terms of an empathy map: What do they say, do, think, and feel? Then build in-depth profiles around each based on learnings from immersion hours, user videos, any other research, data, and surveys.

The CFO

The CFO traditionally has been responsible for straightforward functions like financial record-keeping, planning, and analysis, risk management, and statutory compliance. But the job is changing. According to a McKinsey study, today’s CFOs are more likely to be involved in a variety of broader strategic activities, such as “setting overall corporate strategy, pricing a company’s products and services, or collaborating with others to devise strategies for digitization, analytics, and talent-management initiatives.”

What this means is that CFOs now can, and should, have a role in customer experience. In all of his or her financial tasks, the CFO should be thinking about how to align the company’s resources around making that experience the best possible.

The role may be unfamiliar to some CFOs, but the CFO has to understand the alignment of resources to address customer needs and also the role that disruption to the customer experience can play to both the risks and opportunities to the overall business model. 

The CIO 

The days are gone when the Chief Information Officer’s job was to “keep the lights on.” It’s so much more now. Since customers so often experience a business through its technology and judge the brand accordingly, it’s essential that CIOs stay tuned into the emotions of the customers who end up using their systems.

The modern CIO isn’t corporate overhead; he or she has become one of the stewards of the brand.

Beyond the traditional C-level executives I’ve cited, more and more companies are trying to bring a customer-facing rather than internally focused outlook into the C-suite with new roles such as Chief Insight Officer and Chief Product Officer. And they’re reshaping existing jobs such as Vice President of HR into “Chief People Officers.”

Empathy wasn’t even on HR leaders’ radar until recently. But companies now understand that the experiences an employee has in a company can ultimately reflect on customer experience in the forms of better service, higher retention (the Businesssolver study said 93 percent of employees say they’re more likely to stay with an empathetic employer), and other values.

Employees who understand and love the company’s customer-focused mission can be a competitive advantage unto themselves.

Like what you’ve read? On Growth Quarters, we strive to go beyond generic ‘fortune cookie advice’ and learn directly from the people who have ‘walked the walk.’ And this summer, at TNW Conference 2020 in Amsterdam, we’ll take Growth Quarters offline again with a vibrant program dedicated exclusively to sustainable business growth. Listen to keynotes from leaders from the world’s most successful companies and get actionable guidance to help you grow professionally. Get early bird tickets now and learn more about the Growth Quarters track

Published February 7, 2020 — 15:45 UTC

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