What the Great "White/Gold Dress" Debate CAN Teach Us About Customer Empathy / by Jon Meyer Meyer

...Aaand We’re Back (again)

It’s been crazy with a lot of writing and consulting projects, so sorry for my absence this month. But, remember that I put ‘Crazy Talk” in the title of my blog and this entry might be exemplary and may require trading your late Friday coffee buzz for your favorite libation. It being after 5 o’clock Friday here in San Francisco, please feel free to put a little umbrella in your drink.

Who Wore It Best?!?

 No doubt many of you have had your personal social media feeds filled with arguments about that famous white and gold dress…or is it black and blue? The discussions were so heated, there were apologies from people about how they handled their opinion of the dress’ color.

Halloween Costume Tip: I perceive that you're just as tired of this dress as I am and it will be inflicted on us again come October 31st.

Halloween Costume Tip: I perceive that you're just as tired of this dress as I am and it will be inflicted on us again come October 31st.

If you’re still wondering what color the dress is, you probably didn’t even know this topic caused Internet wars between friends that are usually reserved for politics, religion, and vaccination. Wired did a great piece on the science of phenomena as well as blogger Noah Nelson on how the dress debate is a metaphor of how we discuss larger social issues.

Spring-boarding off go Nelson’s observations, it had me thinking that understanding what the customer perceives as white and gold, is clearly black and blue to the contact center staff. Unfortunately, it's not uncommon for some agents to consider customers, well, dumb. As a reviewer of customer input to improve resolutions and their experience, I have also honed quite a strong sense of empathy to customer’s perception as well.

And there is the crux: perception.

Based on the Wired article, the dress appeared gold and white to many as a simply optical illusion. It’s no different than instantly perceiving a black car to be blue if parked next to a lake on a sunny day.  Since it is captured in a still photo, we don’t have that ability to move about our environment to see the colors shift and adjust our perception.

This is similar to what customers see when faced with a question or technical error. It’s broken. This is the error message. I just want to __________. How products and services communicate failures are one-dimensional snapshots - just like a photo of an optical illusion.

Meanwhile, back at the Contact Center….agents have the context of the error, which in their head, is sometimes silently punctuated with ‘duh’ when explaining to a customer. Try the latest update. Have you tried turning it off and on again? It’s in our knowledge base. 

I have also seen this in customer experience when working with design and support teams for web contact centers. The design team does an amazing job of making it look beautiful and engaging. The support team explains that’s not how customers think when approaching a support site. The design team cites their experience as designers from a marketing perspective and focus groups. The support team cites their experience as working with customers as individuals and their frustrations. Perceptively, both are correct. In the end, we come to a better understanding of each other’s work and deliver a great product for customers.

Is Empathy Scalable?

The best way to break the perception barrier is with empathy for the customer, which should not be confused with condescension. So how do we scale empathy? How can we put that into 5, 10, 20 languages in a multichannel environment? 

For my money, it’s not about a list of popular FAQs (whose metrics are skewed by their mere existence on the front of your support page); or having an agent lead in with a long introduction of promising the most excellent service that they are pleased to offer on this grandest of days to achieve the highest level of satisfaction in the history of billing requests (and good day to you - thanks for your question!). If we are going to go the extra mile by offering omni-channel support firing on the cylinders of self-service, then each of those channels have to listen, confirm, and help rather than welcome, offer, listen, confirm, attempt, offer, and attempt again.

Try this as an experiment the next time you mystery shop or use a contact center. Here is an a very simple example using the dress scenario:  

Listen: what is the customer typing or saying the issue is? “I have a black and blue dress. It’s the wrong color."

Confirm: Rather than ask for an order number, start with “I’m sorry to hear that. What color was is supposed to be?” or “Is it the wrong dress or just the wrong color.” After that, the agent can get the order number/customer info. The point is to validate the customer first. If this were self-service, the article would have a description section, “When ordering a white and gold dress, it arrived as black and blue.” This validates the customer’s experience and shows even an automated system is empathetic.

Help: This is of course where the solution happens. The resolution language should cater to the skill set and demographics of the customers. Again avoid condescension.

So is this crazy talk or is there something to grab on to here? I’d love to talk about it with you.