Sunday, February 1, 2009

Beware the Customer Empathy Gap!

Back in the ‘80s, my husband and I did a lot of outdoors stuff – we went trekking in Bhutan, kayaking in Alaska. We wore Patagonia gear because it was the best, and we knew it would help us do better or more safely whatever it was that we set out to do.

After being a fan, I became an employee. I worked at Patagonia in Ventura in the early ‘90s. It was a company full of true believers who didn’t need to do customer research because they were the customer. They called themselves “dirtbags” – people who couldn’t afford to pay retail and were totally accomplished in the sport, whether it was fly fishing or surfing or mountain climbing. Dirtbags were the opinion leaders who set the tone for what was cool in their sport.

All that’s to say that a recent Saturday interview in the NY Times called "Companies from Mars, Customers from Venus" rang totally true for me. The interview with Dev Patnaik, CEO and Founder of Jump Associates in San Mateo, describes the Empathy Gap –the chasm between employees in organizations and the people they serve.

In my experience, the empathy gap is real. Many companies began as Patagonia did, with its employees' finger on the pulse of its customers, which ensured alignment between company and customer. However, as companies grow, the demands for staff often results in hiring smart, capable employees who may not be or understand users. If they’re not careful, these companies can easily fall into the Empathy Gap.

All of us can name brands that don’t “eat the dog food.” Here are four on my list:
  1. Stub Hub – this internet business has a lousy user interface and my own poor sell through experience suggests that though these guys may indeed be sports fans, they have never tried to sell anything on theirs vs. competing sites. I’ve never managed to sell ANYthing on Stub Hub!

  2. QVC – useless junk hawked by a few earnest people and a bunch of smarmy ones

  3. The Yankees – overpaid, cocky cry-baby players, overpriced tickets, nothing for regular folks who actually love the game and want to root for players they can call heroes.

  4. Wells Fargo – nickel and diming, tell you with a straight face that they have to charge you for having a savings account. Does anyone who works for Wells Fargo actually pay these fees? Doubtful. Most likely, they have special accounts and get special treatment.
Large companies aren't automatically in the Empathy Gap. Even though I’m not a fan of the world’s largest retailer, I have to admit Wal-Mart walks the talk. To my surprise, the company ditched its efforts to move up market, which risked alienating its core audience. And CEO Lee Scott has publicly committed the company that democratized consumption in the United States — enabling working-class families to buy former luxuries like inexpensive flat-screen televisions, down comforters and porterhouse steaks — to democratize environmental sustainability. Wal-mart knows that efficient operations use less energy and produce less waste, and they're going to get the rest of us to make similar changes - helping us align our own priorities and actions. Kudos to them.

For brand managers where the empathy gap exists, here’s a flash: Get to know your customers…fast. While you’re taking them for granted, someone else is trying to take them from you!

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