Empathy, before tech, will lead our economies out of this - comment

Companies around the world have had to change their business models in a matter of weeks.

Brands must re-learn who their customer is and what they care about, says MacMillan. Picture: Stewart Attwood.

Many of them are moving to digital, something often called “digital transformation”. It’s a shift online that many have been undergoing gradually for some time in an effort to stave off digital-first competitors and business model disruptors.

This need to “go digital” has now become necessary just to survive. And it’s not only about going digital, many businesses have had to completely change their business model. Fine dining restaurants have had to move to takeout only or face closing their doors. Retailers are offering kerbside pick-up for their customer’s piece of mind.

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An ability to understand and adapt to evolving customer needs has become the new competitive advantage.

This pace of disruption isn’t easy. We are operating in a world different from what business school taught us. Different from what the online algorithms have been optimising for over the past decade. Different from the experience our management teams have built up that informs their instincts on what to do. How do we manage to adapt our business and re-build our economies in a world of “different”?

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To manage and understand “different,” businesses must step back from their technology, lead with empathy, and lean into the human insights they can gather from their customers.

Consumer behaviour isn’t what it used to be; people are behaving in ways we never could have predicted. Brands everywhere are now faced with this challenge and must re-learn who their customer is and what they care about in this moment. To do this, companies must connect directly to real customers and listen to them in order to understand how to adapt.

Even after these restrictions are lifted, consumer comfort levels with returning to “business as usual” will vary wildly. What will it take for consumers to be comfortable going out to eat or travelling again? Will they need assurances on new processes for disinfection and sanitation? Will they require some continuation of social distancing practices to feel safe?

Resuming services

Are consumers in a place now where they are open to promotions and discount offers? It might seem tone deaf now to be pushing our wares, but at some point we’ll need to get back to marketing our products and services. When is that right time and how do we get that balance right? Customers will tell us… if we listen.

UserTesting, which has a European headquarters in Scotland, has been working with consumers and companies to try to determine the answers to these questions and more. Our Human Insights Platform enables companies to have remote access to more than a million consumers around the world so they can see, hear, and talk to their customers to understand their needs and concerns, and be able to bring customer empathy into the company strategy to make more informed business decisions.

During this challenging time, our team has launched a set of pre-built Covid-19 messaging templates so we can help organisations understand the sentiment of their customers and develop clear and appropriate models for connecting with them.

With this sudden business model disruption, now is an opportunity for businesses to rethink how they actually connect with customers in meaningful ways, and look to bring empathy into their brand experience.

Hopefully, companies can emerge from this situation and continue to provide all of us the many conveniences of doing business through digital channels, but with an approach that shows us they know who we are, they understand our concerns and our desires, and are adaptable while helping us reconnect with each other.

While tech may be what is helping us get by right now, it will be our humanity and empathy that helps us re-engage with the world when we get through this.

Andy MacMillan, chief executive of UserTesting

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