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April 4, 2019

The Customer Empathy Gap

Everyone’s talking about Customer Experience, but do marketers truly understand it?

It’s one of the hottest topics in marketing. Customer Experience — much like Big Data, Marketing Automation, AI, and the Blockchain — is an area that’s widely championed but not well understood. Thought leaders without much skin in the game tout CX as a cure-all for brands. Agencies go on hiring sprees. Marketers shuffle their org charts. It all seems so sexy — so strategic. But when you get down to brass tacks, there’s not a lot of clarity around the process, outputs, and KPIs.

According to a recent study by Havas, 81% of brands could disappear tomorrow and customers wouldn’t care. As shocking as that statistic may seem (to marketers), it’s not surprising when you start digging into Customer Experience stats. A whopping 92% of customers in a Bain and Company survey said that companies fail to deliver on basic CX promises.

Does CX Pass the ROI Test?

McKinsey & Company has performed extensive research regarding the business impact of CX. In their analysis, they’ve found “companies that offer consistently best-in-class customer experiences tend to grow faster and more profitably.” These CX leaders are 80% more likely to retain customers, get more positive referrals, and they don’t have to spend as much on marketing to drive growth. It’s clear that excellent customer experience has a direct impact on companies’ bottom lines.

But if it’s so important, why do so many brands get customer experience wrong?

The story that most businesses tell themselves is that they deliver a “superior experience” (according to that same Bain & Co. study). Not just a good experience. A superior one. Bain then flipped the script and asked customers what they thought of these brands’ experiences.

Only 8% said these brands delivered on a basic customer experience. And that’s the critical issue — there’s a breakdown between what brands are convinced their customers think, and what customers actually think.

It’s more fundamental than what Bain calls the “delivery gap”. It’s a customer empathy gap.

Defining the Customer Empathy Gap

As soon as you join an organization, you’re no longer that company’s customer. You’re now on a never-ending quest to find Market Orientation — the ability to see your brand from the customer’s point of view.

The concept of market orientation means being in tune with who your customer is and what they think, feel, believe, and want. On the surface, this seems like it should be easy. But how many of you have sat through marketing meetings where one personal antidote — “me-search”, if you will — overturns thousands of customer data points? Where someone with nothing in common with your customer strategizes “from the gut”. That would be fine and dandy if marketers were exactly like their customers. But they’re not.

According to a survey by Trinity Mirror Solutions, marketers are more affluent, educated, left-wing, and open to risk-taking than the general public.

And as someone who has worked on world-class “value brands” I can tell you that secretly lots of marketers just don’t get their brand’s core customers. I’ve seen far too many recommendations to shift brands upmarket, rework campaigns, and invest in esoteric platforms — not because that’s best for customers, but because marketers are marketing to themselves.

The Cognitive Bias We’re All Guilty Of…

Marketers — like all humans — fall prey to the cognitive bias of “in-group favoritism”. We form a specific world view, surround ourselves with an echo chamber of like-minded people, and think everyone on Earth shares the same point of view. Because we’re driven by this unconscious bias, relying on our guts in marketing is dangerous business. Marketers must make sure they’re seeking out Market Orientation at every opportunity.

This is an issue you see in every industry — how you think when you’re up close to a project isn’t how the world views your work. The musician and producer Brian Eno described the same effect in the music industry:

“You’re a completely different person as a maker than you are as a listener. That’s one of the reasons I so often leave the studio to listen to things. A lot of people never leave the studio when they’re making something, so they’re always in that maker mode, screwdriving things in — adding, adding, adding. Because it seems like the right thing to be doing in that room. But it’s when you come out that you start to hear what you like.” — Brian Eno

It’s in the never-ending quest to gain market orientation that empathy tools like the Customer Journey Map become critical. Because if you don’t understand your customers on a deep level, how can you expect them to buy your products?

To Create Empathy, Use a Customer Journey Map

The first step to creating a breakthrough CX is created by seeing through the eyes of your customers. That’s where Customer Journey Maps come in. Their core purpose is acting as a visual of how people experience your brand, and the pain points that keep them from coming back. Only after understanding the experience of those who buy your products, can you hope to improve the process in a meaningful way.


Want to learn more? Check out my book "CX That Sings: An Introduction to Customer Journey Mapping": 

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About the author 

Jennifer Clinehens

Writing where decisions, design, and behavioral science meet. Author, CX That Sings, and Choice Hacking.