Executive Summary

Organizations often forget to think about empathy when they redesign — or digitize — processes. Unwittingly, they leave both customers and employees feeling unvalued and unheard. If you pay close attention to rewarding the behavior you seek when designing incentives, finding the right tool for the job, and holding onto face-to-face communication when it counts, you can both optimize processes and maintain a human-centered, empathetic organization.

HBR Staff/Yifei Fang/Getty Images

We all understand that customers and colleagues should be treated with respect — and we all know, too, that digital technologies can get in the way of that happening. Whatever the “job to be done,” key communications tend to become less direct and more impersonal when the job’s digitized. That’s just the nature of the beast: Apps and other technologies are doing a lot of the work that people used to do — and you can’t train an app to have empathy. It doesn’t help that engineers tend to optimize efficiency, rather than user experience, when they redesign work flows.

This isn’t a straightforward problem; it’s not possible or desirable to turn back the clock on digital transformation, of course, and it’s not always easy to re-engineer operations without losing the personal touch. That said, this is a particularly good moment to remember that efficiency won’t get you anywhere if emotional intelligence isn’t built into your operations. Because of Covid-19, your employees and customers are working under extraordinarily stressful conditions.  Many of them are isolated and forced to work with new technologies, fast.  They’re worried about their jobs, their health, and their loved ones. You need your employees to work harder and smarter than ever before, and you need your customers to be patient and loyal — and none of those things will happen if they don’t feel valued, respected, and heard.

Fortunately, there are common-sense ways to keep the importance of human experience front-and-center even as you update your operations.

Keep an eye on incentives – especially if you centralize services.

Maersk, the giant container ship company, has long operated with a high degree of rationality; it has unusually advanced IT systems.  Several years ago, the company set up a Global Shared Services department with the goal of boosting efficiency via digital oversight of all the scattered logistics operations supporting shipments, including the call centers.

The new department wanted to improve call center performance and, with that in mind, introduced key performance indicators (KPIs) and standardized online forms.  Instead of a general mandate to help customers, call center staff had a “tick-the-box” approach, where they could offer certain kinds of help only if the customer’s situation met certain criteria.  Staff also had a four- to five-page form to fill out after every call, so the company could learn from customer complaints. Bonuses were tied mainly to the KPI for the number of calls an agent covered each day.

This well-intentioned plan fell flat, however, as many agents felt pressured by their remote taskmaster. They started to check off a heretofore rare explanation for a shipping problem —“force majeure” — meaning that something outside the company’s control had delayed or damaged a shipment.  For force majeure cases, agents had to fill out only a single-page form, so they could move quickly to the next caller – i.e.,  they didn’t need to spend time understanding the customer’s problem or looking for solutions. Customers, needless to say, were not happy. The agents were gaming the system, but the company had essentially created incentives for them to do that.

After a sharp fall in the stock price and a $2 billion loss in 2016, Maersk eliminated Global Shared Services and gave each region autonomy in how it ran logistics.  Most call center employees now got common-sense metrics that yielded much better information about customer problems.  Customers were happier, too: The company’s worldwide Net Promoter Score doubled in a single year.  Local autonomy undoubtedly introduced some inefficiencies, and the regions now had to negotiate with each other over common challenges rather than rely on the central department. But the greater connection to customers made that worth it.

The same thing happened on a wider level in 2017, when a devastating cyberattack forced the company’s entire IT system offline for a week. To keep shipments on track, employees had to leave their screens and call customers and dock managers, and in some cases even drive over to the port.  It was absurdly inefficient, and profits took a short-term hit. But managers say morale and productivity rose substantially once everything was back online. People suddenly got to see and hear the people they were working with; they weren’t just entries on a screen. The newly energized organization went on to eliminate a variety of nonsensical policies, and earnings more than doubled in the year after the attack.

Find the right tool for the job.

The Dorchester Collection is a group of nine world-class, elegant hotels, and it wants to stay that way.  To ensure excellent service, back in 2017 it gave its hotel staff detailed digital checklists with such items as “Ask guests about newspaper delivery —but don’t show a religious or political preference,” and “Mention the option of room service.” Some of the items  were focused on getting the staff to relate to customers in a human way, for example: “Look the guest in the eye for three seconds as they approach the counter for the first time.” The company used mystery guests to grade the staff, and those whose eye contact was too short — or too long — saw their pay docked.

The elaborate guidance left the staff anxious, focused on the checklists rather than on how their guests were actually doing.  They stopped truly seeing the guests as individuals, and instead treated everyone the same. The Dorchester tried a different tack. It dropped the checklists, and encouraged the staff to use their judgment when interacting with individual customers.  Then it launched an internal initiative, “If Walls Could Talk,” with stories about interacting with famous guests: The house piano player who grudgingly allowed someone to sing along — who turned out to be Whitney Houston. The staff member who told Frank Sinatra on December 7, 1941, that Pearl Harbor had just been hit. This kind of story encouraged staff members to see their guests as real people — and to see the hotel as an institution with a glorious past. Checklists can be a powerful tool, of course, but not when you’re aiming for highly personalized service.

Change the presentation culture.

People have been making fun of slide presentations for years, yet companies seem to be using them as much as ever.  Slides are so efficient at displaying information quickly that we can’t resist.

But we can. London-based Standard Chartered is one of the world’s largest retail banks, with extensive operations in Asia and Africa. At some point leaders realized that PowerPoint presentations were cutting down on the most important kinds of communication. At meetings, people focused on the slides and paid little attention to the presenters. So the bank substantially reduced slide usage in 2018. People no longer focused on the detailed information (which could, of course, be communicated in other forms). They started to make eye contact and to treat the presenter’s talk as just the starting point for discussion.  The sheer volume of information fell, but nuanced discussion and collaboration shot up.

Remember that digital communication sometimes works better than traditional communication. 

When the Baltic Sea froze over in 2015, it really was a case of force majeure, but Maersk’s customers still complained.  The call center agents tried to explain, often without success.  But then the company had its ship captains take photos of the difficulty of navigating through the ice.  It posted the photos on a Twitter account, “WinterMaersk,” and cell agents pointed people to the account.  Many customers suddenly appreciated what it took to deliver their cargo and weren’t so upset over delays.  The company gave that newfound sympathy partial credit for securing an uptick in orders the following year.

Most companies appreciate the importance of relating to colleagues and customers in a human way. They offer training courses in emotional intelligence and communication skills. But when it comes to designing their operations, they too often default to what looks to be the most efficient, digitally-advanced approach. Fortunately, we can gain many of the efficiency benefits of technology without sacrificing the human touch, so long as we stay focused on customer satisfaction and employee engagement.