JoAnn Hackos, Comtech Services

Do your information developers have empathy for your customers? Do they understand what your customers do with your company’s products? Do they know what your customers consider important about your product? Do they know what they find frustrating? How important is customer empathy to your senior management? Do they help you build empathy as part of your training or onboarding program?

As you look forward to 2017, consider the challenge and the opportunity for building customer empathy among your information-development team. Yes, I’m as familiar as you are with the standard come back. The company management doesn’t permit information developers to interact with customers. But why not? What is standing in the way? It’s time to find out—and to challenge the status quo.

In the December 26, 2016, Daily Alert from the Harvard Business Review, Matt Nowack describes the innovative program at Twilio, the cloud communications platform company where he works. The company founders considered customer empathy the number one priority of the company from its beginnings. Nowack has helped developed a program to keep the founders’ vision alive as the company has grown.

Every new employee participates in a week-long program using the Twilio platform to build an app, which is what customers use the platform to do. Of course, every new employee is likely not a programmer, as the customers are. They might be in marketing, sales, customer support, finance, human resources, even technical communication. How can they gain a deeper understanding of what their customers do and what it feels like to use the company’s product (a cloud communications API)?

In fact, Twilio gives every new employee a week-long coding bootcamp, taught by volunteer members of the product-development team. They learn to build simple apps, learning to code in Python. Then, they are asked to build their own unique app and present the results at a company event. If the app is successful, the employee receives a company track jacket and the congratulations of the staff.

All 650 employees have been through this bootcamp program, designed to give them a solid feel for what their customers do with their product. The management believes that the experience makes them more effective, whatever job they do in the company. It makes them more engaged in helping the customers and the company be successful.

When I founded Comtech Services nearly 40 years ago, we devised a motto that is still a key part of our identity. It states: “We help our customers make their customers successful.”

It’s clear that we believe that information is crucial to your customers’ success in learning and using your products. Information developers have a vital role to play in building customer satisfaction and loyalty. So, the question for you to address is: Are my team members connected and empathetic with the customers they serve?

Nowack suggests that building customer empathy is not simple. In fact, it can be especially difficult if your company’s products are not consumer-facing. Information developers developing information for cell phones or online apps or cameras or refrigerators may understand what customers are doing with the products. But if your information developers support financial systems or semiconductors or any type of highly technical product, building customer empathy may be a lot more challenging.

So what can you do to build empathy among your team?

I’m not saying that information developers are not dedicated to supporting the customers and helping them succeed. They most often see themselves as customer advocates. But empathy is something more than positive vibes. Empathy requires that we understand the experience of another individual and act to improve that experience.

I have a personal example that I think is a good illustration. The very first computer-based project that I engaged in occurred in 1981, just as we were founding Comtech Services. A close friend and colleague had become the new CEO of a software development organization that supported the administrative functions of Colorado hospitals. His focus and charge was to introduce computers to the hospitals to support a function called Patient Accounting. None of the clerical people responsible for handling patient information had ever seen, let alone used a computer.

Bob called and asked me to handle the development of training and reference material for this novice audience. I had plenty of computer experience in 1981 but had never developed user information. What to do?

My first impulse was to learn about the users. I suggested to Bob that I take some time visiting the potential users in their hospital workplaces and learn about them and their work. He suggested that I partner with the two people responsible for training hospital employees about data processing functions. The data processing had always been done remotely, from hand-written coding sheets couriered to the data processing center. But the trainers knew the users and were a great help.

The three of us spent three months making hospital visits around the state, at the same time that the software developers were beginning to define the patient accounting software and its user interface. We gathered so much insight into the user behaviors that the lead software developer asked me to design the interface and they would program it as designed.

We had genuine empathy for the hospital clerical staff. We knew many of them personally. We understood how fearful they were about learning to use computers. We wanted to help them be successful.

We developed a documentation and training program that provided each employee with a personalized set of topics that needed in their work. Each received a small manual during training that they took back to their work stations for reference. The information architecture was topic-based and structured, much like we produce today with the DITA standard.

Direct interaction with customers

Of course, direct interaction with the customers is the best way to develop empathy. Over the past 40 years, I’ve visited so many users with whom I sympathized as they described their confusion about the products we were studying. I have taught many information developers to conduct user and task analysis studies with their customers.

Luckily, we have more opportunities now to build empathy for our customers than we ever had before the Internet and social media became part of our tool kit.

Third-party surrogates

Yes, I know, you aren’t permitted to talk to customers. Well, keep working on that. It’s just dumb. Cultivate relationships with others who do regularly interact with customers. One great resource are the trainers, the people who teach customers to use the product. If possible, have your information developers attend the training classes. Be careful, of course, because sometimes the customers who attend the training are not those who will actually use the product.

I once was offered the opportunity to interview the doctors who ran the hospital. They were willing to discuss what the clerical workers did. Unfortunately, they really didn’t know what the clerical workers did.

Get to know the people who answer phone calls from the customers. The service personnel might even let your information developers listen in on calls, getting to know how the customers ask questions and what they find confusing or difficult. Again, be careful because some organizations restrict those who call support lines to people supporting the end users. They are not actually the end users themselves.

Sometimes, sales people are good surrogates, especially if they are interacting with end users. But, again, be certain that they’re talking to the representatives who will help your team build empathy with the end users themselves.

Social media possibilities

Social media presents opportunities for customer interactions that didn’t exist when I started doing customer studies. Information developers can receive direct inquiries about the content they write from websites or help systems. They can interact with users through Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, or other web-based facilities. The possibilities of interaction may prove much more informative than web analytics, which after all are only aggregates of measured interactions. It’s hard to tell if the number of minutes on a page is a reflection of really interesting and useful content or total confusion.

Interactive possibilities

If you can’t interview and observe customers in person, consider inviting them to take part in a web-based conference call. Not only can you ask them about their interactions with the products your team supports, but you can give them control of the screen and ask them to show you what they do and how they do it. They can demonstrate areas of a product interface that they find confusing or frustrating to use. From a distance, your team can begin to build empathy.

Matt Nowack describes the process used in one company to help employees understand what it is like to be one of the customers of the company’s products. Look for opportunities wherever you can find them to help your team develop a personal relationship with the people who use what they write.

Nowack’s conclusion is forceful. Clearly, he and his management sincerely believe that they are a better company because they are passionate about helping the customers. He tells us,

“At the end of the day, passionate, empathetic employees affect your bottom line more than any other company strategy. Whatever your version of Bootcamp is, there’s a way to make sure those employees understand what you offer and empathize with the people who use it.”