Empathy in Digital: Navigating CX Challenges with Sergio Rossini

In this episode we explore some solutions and strategies to build and maintain empathy for the customer journey when so many of these interactions have moved to digital platforms.

Show notes:

Guest: Sergio Rossini

Get in touch with Sergio: LinkedIn

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[Ryan] Welcome to Insightful Leaders. I’m your host Ryan Stuart and this is the show where I interview proven leaders in Customer Insights and CX who share their stories, strategies, and insights to drive meaningful change at your organization.

Our guest for today's episode is Sergio Rossini. Sergio is a Senior Customer-focused Manager with over 20 years of experience leading global CX programs, designing innovative sales and marketing campaigns, and formulating business strategies in services and aftersales environments. Most recently, Sergio was Group Head of Customer Excellence at Schindler, a global lift manufacturer.

In this episode, we are going to focus on the rapid transformation of the CX industry in the face of COVID 19 and the role that insights and storytelling plays in that transformation. Sergio, welcome!

[Sergio] Thank you!

[Ryan] Great to have you along, let’s get straight into it. First question or discussion point.

The CX industry as a whole is a relatively new industry, and it relies heavily on personal relationships and experiences with Customers.

This presents a unique challenge for organisations in a world of social distancing and the switch to digital. How do you see this changing Customer Experience?

[Sergio] Let’s say that in these covid times, I think that people in general and customers are all tired, stressed, fragile. I think fragility is a good word for that. And it doesn’t matter if you put yourself in B2B or B2C, what we have to understand is that all customers are humans. And this leads me to another concept that I love called the humanisation of business.

We should move from the philosophical approach of B2B and B2C to H2H (that is Human to Human). And so I think there is this magic word that is empathy that was so important before that I think the meaning of this word has been amplified with covid and it’s even more important now than ever before.

So empathy is putting yourself in the customer’s shoes and also about experiencing our brands with the eyes and feelings of our customers.

So companies have to re-engineer their customer journeys and all the processes behind them.

[Ryan] Interesting and you know, one of the things about empathy as you point out with customer experience being so human to human it's such a kind of visceral human thing to empathise with someone else and given so many customer touchpoints are moving to digital because of social distancing because of covid-19 (not that some of them weren’t digital before), but it’s really accelerating that shift to digital.

I would guess achieving that same level of empathy, particularly for an organisation to empathise with the customer, would be even more difficult now. What are some of the most important aspects of any solutions or strategies in this space to facilitate these feelings of empathy when so many of these interactions have moved to digital platforms?

[Sergio] I would say that we talk about social distancing but in fact it’s physical distancing. This means that also in a business environment, we have physical meetings, we visit the customer.

I think that now we have much more digital touchpoints (as you say). Now we have a challenge because a zoom meeting is by definition a colder experience than talking in person or eating a pizza or drinking and smiling together. And this creates an atmosphere where you can talk business.

And I would say that in Italy (I’m from Italy so I very much like human connection) decisions are always taken at dinner or at the coffee machine. Then we have meetings but those meetings are just there to validate the decisions taken at the coffee machine. So I think there is a high risk we lose this. I also think that with digital tools we can lose a relationship that has been created before.

I would say however that it is possible to improve customer experience while also going digital. There are many ways to be empathetic with the customer. A good way to be empathetic as a business is to go with an omnichannel approach. This means the customer should have the option to reach us as they want. I think there are customers that do love self service in a portal because they are just looking for information and they don’t actually want to talk to anyone. They want to go straight for that self service.

I also think that there are some other customers that do like phone calls or emails so all these channels should be available for them. The added value that can come from going digital is the integration of all the different sources of information. We should have a place which we call the single source of truth of the company.

Today, we have the problem of, if I communicate with you, I do so with a set of information I have but if you talk to someone else in my company, the other guy will have a different set of information. While going digital you can centralize all the information in one place so that all the different people interacting with the same customer can talk with one voice. One voice means we all tell the same story to that one customer.

This can be an added value, even if I think there is a warm element that comes from being together than cannot be easily replaced. But this is the challenge of customer experience!

[Ryan] Yeah.

[Sergio] The most important thing for a company is to go digital in terms of mindset. They should have a digital mindset first. We have to move from replacing something that was physical to something that was digital.

We have to rethink that touchpoint in a digital way because the majority of the interaction will be digital. It’s not just remote customers we need to consider but also our remote workforce. So my point is, how do we ensure they are delivering a great customer experience to our customers.

That is the real challenge of customer experience. I really believe that happy employees leads to happy customers.

[Ryan] I’d imagine that whole remote working thing also creates a whole other set of challenges, particularly for organisations that were used to being in the same office, it’s a big enough shift by itself to have those customer relationships that may have been physical relationships, you know physically standing across from each other and talking, switching to digital but to also have relationships in the office switching to digital, I imagine that puts more barriers in place for empathy.

For helping people in the office understand what that customer is going through when that customer relationship is digital and now that relationship with the co-worker is digital. Is there anything you can think of from a strategy or technology mindset to help overcome those types of hurdles.

[Sergio] Let’s say that the keyword is always empathy. Empathy is toward the customer but it’s also toward the team and the relationship between the boss and the employees.

Now we have to find ways to cooperate. I really think the risk is micromanaging and control. This is the big risk. This can destroy a company, can destroy the atmosphere. A team has to be happy in order to perform. So we have to find solutions. Regular meetings, having a toast together etc. but I think we have to learn this new thing.

So I don’t have a real solution for you at this moment but we must keep in mind empathy, avoiding micromanagement and trying to build a team around those pillars.

[Ryan] And what about storytelling? What role does that play do you think in trying to translate the story from the customer to the internal stakeholders and build that empathy and you know, even just going from an insights team or CX team into a management team and consequently driving that action? What ingredients are required to get that right?

[Sergio] This is about getting the buy in for a CX program from high level executives. But not only from executives but the whole company! Sales managers and branch managers (or whatever role they have within the company). We all have this picture of board members having no time.

They are really occupied. They have something else to do. Why? They follow their own priorities. That’s the point. So if they are so occupied, perhaps customer experience is not one of their priorities. But we have to live with that, we can be very lucky and have all board members being believers, that’s a lucky situation, almost probably, and we have to convince them some way.

One suggestion for convincing managers is always “show me the money”. They understand money, they are in business, they are responsible for the business so if you are able to highlight that CX initiatives bring back money they understand. But I fear in the long run this is not enough. They get in the habit and we have to educate them. Let me tell you something you might not be expecting to hear. If you observe these board members you will see they are also human.

They do not think only in terms of numbers (yes they like numbers) but they also have their emotions. So I think that storytelling is also very important for changing their mindset. It’s the duty of everyone working in customer experience to be able to translate all survey data, voice of the customer program into something visual that is able to talk and tell a story. That is why I think visual reporting is so important. We make thousand of surveys and digging into all of these thousands of surveys and being able to translate all of this into one cohesive story - very important from a visual point of view because it can move things much more than numbers or statistics. Saying we have 10% detractors - what does this even mean?

Having text analytics tools that can translate the words used by the customer into something that can be done is the key. I really think that customers give us messages and talk with scores. We ask scores. How likely are you to recommend? They give us a number between 1-10. What’s very important is the reason behind the number, behind the score.

The why. That’s why it’s so important to ask open questions, to be able to dig into the open ended questions and to translate everything into a very simple, visual way. Digging into unstructured data is very important. If you want I have an example here, if you want I’ll keep it short?

[Ryan] Sure!

[Sergio] So we were making 130,000 surveys each year (in multiple languages, 60 countries Italian, Spanish, Hungarian etc) and we were digging into this element that kept popping up everything. Communication. Lack of communication or poor communication. But that wasn’t enough, we had to transform these things said by a customer into an action.

So we started realising the majority of the time when customers were using this word communication in a very bad way (they were detractors), was when the elevator was broken (Schindler after all are in the global elevator manufacturing business). Our answer back to the customer was always something like “ok we’ll send someone over to help you”. The guy didn’t have any other information. So we were unable at that time to give something more.

We couldn’t say to the customer we will be onsite at 2pm and then when we arrived, let them know we are now onsite, and the problem with the elevator has been fixed or not fixed, and if not fixed, for the following reason etc. Things like this are so common with companies like Uber, Amazon etc. Their communication is constant and immediate. We didn’t have this in the elevator industry. We transformed these surveys into actions to improve communication around expected time of arrival in a way that did not impact revenue or top line results.

This is the way to transform customer insights into measurable actions, measure and then report on the financial impact of that action or change.

[Ryan] That is a really good example of going from what customers are talking about to actually making change at the business and actually being able to see that change have a measurable impact in a way that managers really care about.

I talk to a lot of people in this industry, CX people, insights people and I’m always surprised by the wildly different organisational structures, are they one team or two teams? In your view, where does the CX team need to sit in an organisation to be most effective?

And what about the Insights team. Should they be a part of the CX team or a separate team?

[Sergio] When I started working in CX, customer satisfaction (at that time we didn’t have the term customer experience) was in the quality assurance department. Then it moved under Marketing (being closer to the customer). Then it moved again to Branding. There is a natural evolution, but it’s so important where the CX team lives, however it has to be fairly high in the hierarchy of the company, otherwise things do not happen.

There is another important element. The charisma of the leader of CX or customer experience. Being CX director is a place where you land after a journey within the company. If you worked in sales, execution, management, then you can land in customer experience. I do not believe in CX professionals who do not have field experience. Why? Because it is very important to have street cred and muddy boots. People they smell your experience a mile away.

They understand what you are talking about if you are able to translate what customers are saying into actions. If you’re talking to a sales manager, they’re thinking about offers, orders, billings etc. They’re not thinking about detractors in the long run, promoters, he/she doesn’t have a CX mindset. If you are able to show them customer experience is not additional workload.

[Ryan] Agree, the most important thing is to have that high level organisational buy in and relating everything back to the metrics the decision makers in the organisation actually care about. Which is why organisational structure doesn’t really matter.

[Sergio] Absolutely. The experience of the person leading the CX program is key.

[Ryan] So I want to go into a little deeper about that. I think your viewpoint of having mud on your boots, having street cred after being in the field is such a fantastic way for a CX leader to build that influence within the organisation.

Let’s say someone has that, or has some of the ingredients of that, but are still experiencing push back, perhaps the organisation has aspirations to be customer centric and care about customer experience but they’re not quite there yet and they’ve had some doubts along the way, how do CX leaders go about getting them to change their mindset and make them customer centric and make them care about customers as a core tenet in the organisation?

[Sergio] Let’s say that if you’re able to talk business, you should not find yourself in that situation. But it can also happen that you’re unlucky and board members don’t listen to you. It can sometimes be the case that those in the CX field follow you but that support is not matched at the board level.

Sometimes decision makers have more on their mind which is a higher priority (such as company strategy), even though I personally believe there is nothing more important to strategy than the customer experience. I’ll give you a pragmatic hint, most likely the pushback comes from the cost of CX initiatives. So you do not have enough budget. You have to find ways to have easy wins, otherwise you cannot progress. There are some initiatives that are not expensive. For example celebrating a CX day.

Celebrating something about CX is quite common in companies these days. You could have a CX day or a CX week or whatever, but what is important is this allows you to involve the whole organisation in giving awards to your own people. Ok? You celebrate people because they have been very successful with customers. This is good because it doesn’t cost a thing. Or you can organise activities involving customers. For example, before covid-19, we tried some gamification having sales people inviting the customers into their offices. The salesperson who was able to bring the most customers was the winner. And this is a way to show you have a true relation with the customer.

You can also have video shooting with the customer as testimonials. You move the entire company, it’s highly symbolic, cost effective and has high visibility and can also go social (you can use LinkedIn, Facebook, Instagram or whatever channel you want) in order to give high visibility to how you treat your customers, in a way that involves the whole organisation.

I think this can be a hint to move the culture mindset. Eventually though, you will have to demonstrate a way to bring the money home.

[Ryan] Yep, ok. Understood. I think I’ve learned a lot from your answers so far. If you don’t mind, I would like to move onto our rapid fire questions. I’m going to ask you five rapid-fire questions about CX and about yourself. Are you ready?

[Sergio] Ok, let’s try!

[Ryan] Ok, first question, what’s the best piece of CX or Insights advice you have ever received?

[Sergio] I learned something from a salesman. I was so proud of having created a certain process, there was a survey, a closed loop, the you do this and that etc. I was so proud. Then I travelled to america, I was in New Jersey and as I always do, I decided to go out and meet with customers with my salesman.

When we were in the car together he received an email from a customer who had just completed one of these surveys I had built with my team. So I was curious to see how this would play out in real life. The salesman turned to me and said “thank god it’s not a detractor!”. It turns out, he had created his own process (not my process). In his mind, if it’s not a detractor, you don’t close the loop and follow up. So you forget and ignore. So I discovered the importance of implementation.

It’s not only designing surveys, it’s going out into the trenches and checking on what actually goes on out there.

[Ryan] Yep.

[Sergio] They have their own processes and own priorities. So you have to go out and learn.

[Ryan] Yeah, it’s almost like that salesman was your own customer and you were going out and doing your own user research into how your own processes were working. What are you most excited about in the world of CX right now?

[Sergio] I don’t know, I see a challenge. The challenge is finding a balance between digital transformation and empathy. I don’t know what the final outcome will be.

[Ryan] Interesting. What book would you recommend to our audience and why?

[Sergio] I prepared two books for you. One is here, it’s very institutional, very conventional. ‘The Ultimate Question 2.0’ by Fred Reichheld (for beginners).

[Ryan] A great book!

[Sergio] So you have to start from there but there is much more afterwards. It’s a pillar. And then I have one which is not conventional at all: “PIG - Pain is good” by Sampson Lee. He argues that we tend to think about the customer experience as customer service, but customer service is only one part of it.

But you also have the product and pricing and all those other considerations. That’s why it’s important to think about pricing. That’s why it’s so important to be high up in the hierarchy.

CX is not just about chasing up complaints or following up with detractors, it’s also having a word about the development of the product and the pricing. I really think this is a complete and holistic approach rather than looking at a small segment or slice of the customer.

[Ryan] Hm, interesting, we’ll make sure to share links to those two books. We actually have The Ultimate Question 2.0 on the bookshelf here in the office but I haven’t seen the second one. Thank you!

If I were to ask you which person or company is really nailing it when it comes to CX or Insights, who comes to mind?

[Sergio] I’m going to return to Sampson Lee because I had a training course with him in Frankfurt in 2015. I still think his way of thinking is original. I’ve spoken to many CX professionals and they all say the same thing. What Sampson Lee does is look at companies like Ryan Air. A company known for their terrible customer service. Yet, they are very successful! Why?

Why do people continue to purchase from a company delivering horrible customer service? If you believe good customer experience delivers revenue, why is Ryan Air (a company delivering bad customer experience) able to also deliver revenue and be successful in business? I think it’s because they own a secret promise.

Their promise is a brand promise - Ryan Air is cheap and no frills. And yes, it’s true their experience is painful, but they’re not promising a good experience they’re promising you a low cost airfare. Even if you hated the experience after the flight you will still return as a customer because you understand their promise and decide that is worth more than a good experience. The same can be said for IKEA or for Louis Vuitton. Very expensive products.

But they have a different promise. So there is a link between the promise they make for customers and the fact that they are able to keep it is more important than being perfect on all touchpoints. So you can be very selective in choosing the touchpoints that are relevant for your promise and focus exclusively on those touchpoints. His argument is pain is good.

The gap between the highest peak of pleasure and the trough of the lowest point of pain, that gap is what makes the experience memorable. That is a new perspective! I’m not saying it’s a perfect argument, I’m saying it’s stimulating a new way of thinking.

[Ryan] Yes, I would agree with that. As you say, for Ryan Air it’s not about delivering a stellar experience but about delivering on a brand promise. So final questions, what's an interesting little fun fact about you that most people don't know?

[Sergio] My wife is an art therapist working in the mental health sector and some of these guys are artists, they paint for example and make expositions. This is called outsider art.

I follow my wife in this adventure always taking pictures of these events, putting these photos up on social media. One day, one of these guys who knew I was travelling a lot, I travelled for work reasons (I had responsibilities to travel during my time at Schindler) asked where I was travelling next.

I said Malaysia and Thailand. He said “Ah I understand, for your pictures!” I realised in that moment he believed my job was as a professional photographer and being a globetrotter, running around the world taking pictures! And I didn’t realise I gave people that impression.

[Ryan] Interesting, well your real job was just as exciting. Sergio thankyou for your time, it was super insightful. I have a new book to read! If folks want to get in touch with you, what’s the best way for them to do that?

[Sergio] I think my LinkedIn profile is the perfect way to get in touch with me.

[Ryan] Sergio, thank you so much. It has been an absolute pleasure to have you on the show. It’s been very insightful.

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