Brett Frazer stops talking periodically to breathe. Not just any breath — a deep, intentional breath that he encourages everyone watching and listening to take as well.
The vice-president of customer service at San Francisco-based Sunbasket was leading a session on Tuesday at Customer360 Africa — a virtual event hosted by Corinium Global Intelligence — in which he was demonstrating what it takes to turn empathy from a concept to a living (and breathing) business practice.
Sunbasket is a company that began as a provider of meal kits but which expanded earlier this year into full-service meal delivery offering ready-to-heat meals and individual grocery ingredients such as proteins, snacks, sides and pantry staples. The firm’s mission is to “help people live their healthiest lives, starting on their doorsteps.”
While the need for food delivery services only intensified as more consumers sought to avoid grocery stores during COVID-19, Frazer said Sunbasket has learned that building greater empathy for customers is just as important as having a great selection of food.
“The downside of our product is it starts dying the moment it’s harvested,” he said. “The last mile delivery to our customer’s door is outside of our control in a network that’s 30 per cent per capacity. This means things will go wrong, and when they do, we can quickly turn from being a benefit to an inconvenience.”
Empathy is not to be confused with sympathy, Frazer said, which is often pervasive within contact centres. Quoting author and researcher Brene Brown, he noted that while well-intentioned, sympathy can lead to an imbalanced power dynamic that can lead customers to feeling disconnected or isolated.
“There’s the, ‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ with no hint of sorrow, no connecting emotion and sometimes a hint of sarcasm or animosity,” he said, referring to the way agents often deal with customer complaints. “And the next sentence often stars off with, ‘But.’”
As its business has evolved, Frazer said Sunbasket is certain that empathy can be directly tied to key business outcomes. His presentation included multiple examples from industries as wide-ranging as airlines and telecom firms.
Sunbasket’s first step in cultivating more empathy among its service team was to identify the skill sets or characteristics that tend to be associated with it. These includes adaptability, curiosity, inclusion, creativity, connectedness, relatability, self-reflection and systems thinking.
The company now incorporates questions in its recruitment process to see if candidates possess any of those skills. Frazer said it’s unlikely any individual person will have them all, but even possessing two can double the likelihood an agent will be able to handle customer negativity more successfully, he said.
This doesn’t stop with Sunbasket itself. The company’s business process outsourcing (BPO) partner does the same thing, Frazer said, showing sample questions such as “How do you handle a customer who you have been helping that no longer wants to speak with you and is extremely upset?”
Next, Frazer said to survey of the common strengths of your top performing team members. What common themes come up? What can you include in your hiring practices to find people with these strengths? How can you encourage staff to build on these strengths?
Though he stressed that empathy can’t be faked, Frazer argued it can be manufactured. Sunbasket realized, for instance, that its BPO partner in Belize lacked the personal experience to create an empathic connection.
“If agents have no experience with the product or service and no context with the problem, experiencing customers’ frustrations quickly leads to apathy,” he said.
Subasket has since shuffled its employee onboarding so that, rather than train agents on its products and then put them to work, it takes two weeks to have them walk through a simulation of its typical customer journey.
Some members of the class will experience the common failure points in that journey (like a delivery running late, for instance). The class then discusses the problems during the journey, including what impact it would have if they went through them in real life and what they would want to see fixed.
Perhaps most importantly, Frazer urged Customer360 Africa attendees to ask themselves if they are creating an organization where employees feel empathy as well, either directly or through partners. If the answer is no, it will manifest itself in the service experience accordingly, he said.
“Widespread lack of empathy is not an agent issue. It’s a leadership issue,” he said. “It’s an output of the work environment that we build and that we model and that we allow.”
The work Frazer and his team have done have led to big improvements in Sunbasket’s Customer Effort Scores (CES), but that’s only his No. 2 metric. Top of the lists is employee experience.
“If you don’t show them empathy, how can you expect (agents) to care and connect with the feelings and thoughts of your customers?” he said. “The answer can’t be ‘Because we pay them.’”
Shane Schick tells stories that help people innovate, and to manage the change innovation brings. He is the former Editor-in-Chief of Marketing magazine and has also been Vice-President, Content & Community (Editor-in-Chief), at IT World Canada, a technology columnist with the Globe and Mail and Yahoo Canada and is the founding editor of ITBusiness.ca. Shane has been recognized for journalistic excellence by the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance and the Canadian Online Publishing Awards.