24 physiotherapy.asn.au apanext2018.com.au Empathy is key to customer experience Alex Allwood. Keynote speaker Alex Allwood, customer experience consultant with All Work Together Pty Ltd, discusses the importance of the customer experience ahead of her presentation on the second day of the APA’s NEXT Conference. In an effort to deliver organisational outcomes, have we lost the art of caring? Customer experience is a strategic business proposition that promises engagement, competitive advantage and sustainable growth. While the customer experience is recognised for delivering better business outcomes, what’s increasingly absent is the soft skill of customer empathy. Being empathetic means feeling what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes; feeling what your customers are experiencing, evaluating the emotional impact of the experience and making positive change as a result. Empathy is an important part of leadership and culture. A customer- centric leader has the ability to drive customer-led change and the ability to imbue this skill in others. My ambition is to only work with the ‘coalition of the willing’. That is, organisations committed to creating a culture of customer centricity by putting the customer at the centre of their business decision-making and day-to-day actions to make a difference in their customers’ lives. Over the years I have been exposed to the very best and worst decision-making behaviours. Even leaders who have the fortitude for cultural change and possess compelling insights into the root cause of their customers’ trials and tribulations can derail innovation efforts with a lack of empathetic decision-making. In one case, a decision from the chief executive stunned both myself and the executive team. Our problem to solve was improving customer waiting times when many previous attempts had failed. After many weeks of field research to understand customer needs and expectations and map the customer experience journey, the research exposed the triggers of high stress during waiting, and the correlation between these stresses and negative word-of-mouth. The decision not to proceed with addressing this customer pain point, due to the link between waiting time and revenues, showed how a lack of customer empathy in decision-making can stifle innovation efforts, even when the business case presented better customer and business outcomes. Instead of customer-led innovation, the business implemented minor service enhancements, which resulted in only low-level impact. Even in industry sectors most recognised for caring, such as public health, a failure to be empathetic has led to poor customer outcomes. A recent Sydney Morning Herald article (‘More compassion and empathy will improve our health system’, 6 June 2018) cites: ‘examples of poor patient experiences include: excessive delays in discharge lounges; being discharged with incorrect or inadequate medical supplies; poor or inadequate communication; and poor physical access to the hospital.’ Furthermore, the article states: ‘Evidence clearly shows that where empathetic communication and compassion are prevalent, clinical teams are more effective, staff morale is higher, patient complaints are fewer and patient quality and safety scandals are less likely. Moreover, these factors deliver improved operational and financial benefits for the whole hospital.’ In the absence of empathy skills, organisational leaders revert to what they know: decision-making that is biased by shareholder returns, productivity gains and personal agendas. Failing to develop empathy and imbue this in others can mean the difference between ‘business-as- usual’ and delivering greater value for customers that leads to greater organisational value.