When I (Xavier van Leeuwe) pressed the doorbell of the apartment of one of our customers, I felt tired. My work day had been really busy, and I had just travelled two hours through rush hour to the city of Rotterdam to do this interview after work. I would probably not be home before midnight.

But my mood changed when I entered the apartment, which was filled with works of fine art and designer furniture. The views overlooking the river Maas were fantastic.

My host, one of our readers, was most welcoming, inviting me for a drink at his table while we talked about what role our newspaper played in his life. He loved the content but was very critical about the communication. After 25 years, why had we never contacted him before?

The extra 3.8% retention between new subscribers who receive a welcome call and those who do not makes a positive business case and translates to an extra 1,500 relationships a year.
The extra 3.8% retention between new subscribers who receive a welcome call and those who do not makes a positive business case and translates to an extra 1,500 relationships a year.

He showed me the only thing he received from us: a yearly invoice. It stated the amount to be paid and nothing more. And that amount was quite strange: It ended in cents (our subscription fees are in round euros), and the amount changed every year — sometimes higher, sometimes lower.

“Is that because I had a vacation stop?” he asked. “Do you subtract those days from my invoice, or do I receive more newspapers later on?” I looked at the invoice and didn’t have a clue.

He went on: “Because of these vague prices, I decided to visit your Web site to check what the right amount was, only to find out you are offering lower rates to new customers. That totally enraged me. If you had not visited me this evening, I would probably have stopped the subscription.”

Although the invoice turned out to be technically correct, we were losing customers here without realising it.

It may have felt like extra work before I entered the home of this subscriber, but I am really glad I met him personally. We touch base regularly now, and he keeps showing me where we are doing the right or wrong thing. In the ivory tower of the office, we are all too often unaware of what customers are experiencing in the field.

Data is only half the story

The road to that customer’s apartment really started at a conference where David Kelley of Stanford University explained how he had built a course for non-creative businessmen to become creative and design better experiences for their customers. This is the man who designed the first mouse for Apple. His breakthrough ideas have transformed business, government, and health care.

And what did it take? Empathy.

We experienced that listening to real people complements listening through data. Through the data, we would never have discovered a technically correct — yet confusing for customers — invoice could lead to an end of the relationship. When we combined the efforts of data analysis with building empathy for customers, we developed better insights in how to adjust business processes to strengthen those relationships.

Feeling the needs of your customers

When we determined building relationships was the main purpose of our work, it didn’t take long before improving customer experience became a top priority.

We started with improving some basics, like sending a confirmation e-mail when a customer filled out a complaint form at the Web site and simplifying the flow of creating a digital account. These simple things had never received any attention before, because the experience of our loyal customers was not really our concern. We were always too busy acquiring new customers.

The tangible improvements resulted in an immediate drop in customer service calls, a more top-of-mind position for the subject of customer experience in the company mindset, and a wish to better understand the feelings of our clients. What do they expect from us? What role does NRC play in their lives? What frustrates them? What do they cherish?

With the help of the Rotterdam-based company Livework, we discovered a method to explore these kinds of feelings: the area of service design. Building empathy for customers starts with being needs-focused, with going beyond studying behaviour and starting to understand the beliefs and attitudes driving that behaviour.

You could call this the part of the iceberg that is underwater. Sometimes, customers have hidden needs that aren’t met. It is all about stepping into the mind of your customers. If you are reading their diaries, visiting their houses, and sitting at their kitchen tables, they will share all their positive and negative feelings about your product and service.

When you have place yourself in the shoes of your customers, they crawl under your skin. You can’t forget them once you are back behind your desk. They seem to speak to you from time to time when you are making decisions that will affect the daily lives of customers.

That is why we recommend these interviews take place regularly and be conducted by customer-facing agents, board members, and everyone in between.

Whether we are from finance, sales, service, production, or accounting, we can all learn from our customers. When more employees have truly empathised with customers, more employees will take that experience back to their daily work — and the company culture will start to change.

Breaking down silos with customer experience

Getting customer experience on the agenda can do a lot of different things for your company. First of all, it improves relationships with clients. In addition to that direct effect, it can also help you to get silos aligned.

Customer experience is not a department or a function title. It’s more like a shared belief, and most of your co-workers will be open to doing things for customers, because, in the end, the customers are paying for our daily bread.

For that reason, customer experience has the power to break down silos. You can invite everybody in the company to join a project and share their knowledge about customers.

Overcome resistance

There is also a hidden downside to the power of customer experience. Because it’s nobody’s primary responsibility, there can be resistance to taking on the subject. We experienced three kinds of resistance:

  • We are all busy without the extra work.
  • It’s perceived as touchy-feely and costly.
  • Experts prefer to listen to their inner voice.

What can you do to overcome these forms of resistance?

Management should be personally involved.

The difficulty with tasking everyone to improve customer experience is that it’s something else on top of their regular work. Nobody is against good experiences for customers, but employees will protest against more work added to their already full agendas.

Overcoming this problem starts with the leadership. Middle management makes or breaks the success of a change in culture toward customer centricity. They have to believe in it, put the subject on the agenda, and be personally involved in getting to know the customers. Because when managers don’t invest time in customers, why should other employees?

Make the subject as hard as steel.

While trying to overcome the resistance to the extra workload of customer experience, it is possible to immediately walk into another form of resistance. Customer experience appears soft — a touchy-feely subject about emotions. From that point of view, it’s often disregarded by top managers. Why should you invest any money and time in cuddling? We have a customer service department, right?

One solution can be to make the project measurable, so you can show its impact in numbers. For example, you could introduce KPIs like a Net Promoter Score. Sometimes it’s even possible to make a business case as hard as steel, like we did with our welcome programme.

To improve the experience of new customers, we started a pilot programme in which we called new subscribers and tried to engage them with our digital products while also checking if delivery of the newspaper is going as planned. We also asked if they were happy with the product they chose.

We knew this project had to result in a 2.6% decline in cancellations of new subscriptions to earn back the cost of the calls. The pilot resulted in a 3.8% decline in cancellations, which meant the business case was positive: If we implemented this as a standard operating procedure, we would have 1,500 more relationships, a gain of 50,000 euros on the bottom line, and improved customer experience, all at the same time.

These kinds of hard numbers help to get trust and support at every level in the organisation.

Train yourself and your colleagues in active listening.

Listening to customers may encounter resistance from experts, especially when they see themselves as responsible for enlightening and surprising customers. Experts tend to strongly believe innovation is created by brilliant individuals who ignore customer input and rely on their prophetic vision for a better future.

There are two famous quotes that are used often to illustrate why it’s not smart to listen to customers. Henry Ford once said, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Steve Jobs stated that no customers realised they wanted the iPhone before they saw one.

Both quotes basically say most people don’t know about technical innovations and can’t tell what a future product should look like. And that’s absolutely true. Customers are not technical experts; that’s why customer experience research is not about the specific features of a product.

Customers do, however, know what they need in their lives and what they expect from companies, provided you ask in the right way. Henry Ford probably knew from his customers they would love fast, reliable, and comfortable transport, and Steve Jobs knew his customers wanted to have the Internet in their pockets.

This is also illustrated by a lesser-known quote from Steve Jobs: “Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves.”

So how do you get creative, highly specialised, and brilliant individuals interested in connecting to customers? This can be a really hard process, because people are who they are, and changing anyone’s way of working and thinking is very tough. But it is possible.

We taught the skills of listening and understanding the needs of somebody else by following an empathy course and practising active listening in the framework of Thomas Gordon. We trained ourselves to figure out what somebody else really feels, deep inside.

This training helped us to interview customers about their needs and to emphasise with them. We enriched our inner voice with the voice of the customer and invite you to do the same.