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Turning empathy into action when it counts the most

Matthew Nolan, Log in to subscribe to the Blog

Every so often there is a major event that can fundamentally change life as we know it. Sometimes those events are regional, such as the wildfires in California or Australia, and sometimes those events are global, such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The only thing that’s certain is change is the new normal.

The constant change isn’t the only problem – it’s the pace of change that sends us spiraling. With COVID-19, markets, borders, policies, and even personal freedoms are all changing in days or minutes, not months or years anymore. We’re asking ourselves dire questions on a regular basis: Is my family safe? How do I protect them? Will I still have a job? What bills can I afford to pay right now? What’s going to happen next week or next month? People are struggling and so are businesses. Many weren’t built to move this fast or be this agile. They can’t keep up with what customers need right now.

The Rule of “Too”

Big enterprises are hamstrung by too many limitations – they’re too big, too complex, and too siloed to be agile; held back by too much process with too many handoffs. And when they make decisions, there’s too much data, too many rules about how it can be used, and too much manual effort just to make small things happen. And maybe most importantly, there are too many channels needed to interact with more customers than ever. If you push too hard, too much risk is introduced to the business. This is already a recipe for disaster, but when there’s a crisis and we’re suddenly required to move fast, we can’t – so all hell breaks loose.

Technology is often seen as a way to mitigate the “toos,” but it can have the opposite effect. Looking at technical solutions, even by narrowing the field down to just customer engagement, there are still approximately 7,000 unique solutions available in the market at this exact moment, designed to improve customer engagement in different ways. Having options is always great until you consider that every time you introduce a new solution into your marketing stack, that’s one more disconnected, siloed application with its own rules, data models, and unique ways of understanding and interacting with customers. None of these technologies were built to work together – they were built to help businesses sell products in big batches and large segments via traditional campaigns.

The problem is, the average campaign in any market gets less than a 1% response rate. Ninety-nine out of 100 people are ignoring anything you send because the likelihood that it’s completely irrelevant to their needs or interests is high. And in times like now, with so many people in such dire straits, customers have little tolerance for being sold to – and once you’ve lost them, they’re gone for good. In today’s climate, nobody can win when this happens.

What does it take to change the equation? Acting with empathy.

Empathy at scale

Empathy is about understanding someone else’s feelings – their emotions, their context – and adapting to them within a conversation. At the core, empathy means acting like a real, living, breathing, caring human being – respecting the information at hand and the other person’s frame of mind.

But empathy has been difficult to operationalize in day-to-day business because of heavy reliance on one-to-many techniques, like segmentation and batch campaigns. In those models, you choose what you want to say and who you want to say it to long before that message ever gets delivered. When you use a sales-first approach like this, by the time it’s received by your customers, it’s rarely relevant.

The ability to make decisions in real-time is critical. You must be able to look at a person’s context, understand what’s happening to them as an individual, and ask yourself: Should we try to sell to this person right now? Or serve them? Is this an opportunity to retain them? Do we need to alert them to something that could provide value in their lives at this very moment? Or should we leave them alone for now? When you’re on the right side of this equation, that’s an empathy-first approach.

There’s little disagreement that an empathy-first approach is the right thing to do, but how do you shift your business to align with this model? You can’t keep operating in silos; you can’t even operate in the loosely integrated model that 60% of the world uses right now. Even when you’re all using the same data, there’s “harmonic dissonance” when every channel or business line does things based on their own agenda. What you really need is to evolve and centralize your decisions. By doing so, what a customer did a half-second ago will drive how you interact with them right now – and when every channel is connected, those channels are able to learn and adapt together. That’s when empathy becomes very real and not just a talking point.

Always-on adaptation

With all this disruption, so much emotion flying around, and with everyone’s circumstances changing so fast, the first step towards shifting to an empathy-first approach is a commitment to agility. At Pega, we call this always-on adaptation. Monolithic, low-agility strategies don’t fly anymore because when something like COVID-19 happens, or the market tanks, or a natural disaster causes billions of dollars’ worth of damage, everything must be centralized so you can roll out new strategies and new messages in hours, not weeks or months.

When you’re making real-time decisions, you can look at each individual person’s circumstances and decide how to approach your interactions with them. We cannot stress this enough: this is not a time to be pushy. Instead, make sure that your customers, the people you serve, the people that make your business go, have what they need. When your customers must make a tough choice, they need to know you have their backs. But it’s not just the customer who wins here. Building strong relationships with each customer has obvious benefits for your business – it’s far easier to pro-actively retain them than to try to save them when they’re fed up. This is the time to earn their trust for the long-term.

The reality is that you must find a more balanced way to sell. Ultimately, you’re still a business with objectives and commitments you must meet. You can still sell and be empathetic. Under very adverse circumstances, be mindful of what your customers are going through. When an opportunity to make an offer presents itself – because that customer has a need – you need to have a relevant, suitable offer available for them in that moment. Don’t go entirely dark – but be respectful, be relevant, and earn their trust. Make it about them, not your need to sell. If customer-centricity is truly a value your organization holds, it should be that way anyway.

Learn more:


Challenge: Customer Engagement Product Area: Customer Decision Hub Product Area: Pega Customer Decision Hub Topic: AI and Decisioning Topic: Personalized Customer Experiences

About the Author

Matthew Nolan, senior director of product marketing and decision sciences at Pega, helps organizations orchestrate customer journeys, personalize engagement, and maximize customer lifetime value with AI and next-best-action intelligence. He is also regular keynote speaker who shares his professional insights on nearly two decades of marketing technology experience.