From Lenin to pizza, via roommates and coming out. It’s all about them, not you.

[Image courtesy of Micah Elizabeth Scott at Flickr Creative Commons]

If you’re not a Trump supporter, and can only think of negative things to say about POTUS, what do you think it feels like to be one of those who would bear arms to defend everything he stands for?

And if you voted against leaving the EU, can you imagine – even for a moment – what might motivate somebody to rush headlong into the unknown and visit two years or more of uncertainty on an outbound UK? And all for the prize of ‘taking back control’. 

Trying to understand the mindset of somebody you fundamentally disagree with can be a very enlightening experience.

Just recently, at a friend-of-a-friend’s house, we strayed onto the subject of politics. As the friend once removed waxed lyrical about Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, I saw a few heckles rising in the assembled company. And as my gaze ran around the room, I noticed a miniature bust of Lenin in pride of place on a bookshelf, in front of some heavyweight political tomes.

I knew we were in for a bumpy ride.

And yet somebody else who I know profoundly disagrees with the Corbynistas took a distinctly conciliatory line: asking questions, seeking out the original speaker’s opinion and trying to understand the political journey he’d been on.

It was really quite impressive. And all the more so for being unusual. 

Outside in, not inside out

Changing your perspective can be a bit of wrench, but it helps you understand why people think what they think. And if those people are your customers, then it’s a wrench worth making.

Because the resulting empathy can provide some serious insight into what’s working – and what’s not. 

So what do you think it’s like dealing with your company from the other side?

Try to imagine what it’s like to be on the receiving end of that policy you just put in place about returns, or the complaint you dealt with by sending out a boilerplate email. What’s it like listening to We built this city (on rock and roll) for the tenth time when you’re on hold? Or being told by a customer service representative that the information on the website is out of date? 

Being your own customer is a great way to see what your service is really like.

It’s something that Rupert Hunt, founder of accommodation site SpareRoom, got to see first hand when he himself unexpectedly had rooms to rent following his marriage breakdown.

He realised that getting the right roommate was more important than getting a roommate. And also that the chat facility was the ‘beating heart’ of the site, not just a nice-to-have.

He used his experience to improve the company’s offering, and when they expanded from the UK to the US, he even (above and beyond, I think you’ll agree) moved stateside and found roommates there too to see what it felt like. 

Stop being you and start being them

I was reminded recently of empathy when a friend sent me a link to a very funny YouTube video called If Straight People Had To Come Out.

As you can probably guess, it turns the world on its head, and imagines what it would be like if the majority suddenly became the minority.  If you’re up for more in the same vein, check out the even funnier If Lesbians Said The Stuff Straight People Say.

Though they’re humorous, these videos make a very serious point: that it isn’t until you see the world as others do (or they see it as you do) that true empathy takes place.

So a general news story about a mass of people – refugees, for instance – doesn’t hit home until you hear one individual’s story, and begin to relate on a personal level.

Often, we get so caught up in the mechanics of doing business that we forget the customer on the other end. Remember the last time you were on a plane that inexplicably sat at the gate, locked and loaded, for what seemed an eternity?

If you’re sitting in the cockpit waiting for clearance from the tower, or for a technical glitch to be sorted out, it’s easy to overlook the couple of hundred passengers in the back.

A pilot friend of mine says says he tries to remind himself that the flyer’s mantra ANC (aviate, navigate, communicate) applies equally on the ground. So he always lets the passengers know exactly what’s happening to manage their expectations.

But sometimes, a few well-placed announcements don’t cut it.

When severe thunderstorms caused disruption earlier this year in the Atlanta area and hundreds of flights were delayed or cancelled, Delta showed they ‘got’ their passengers’ predicament. They turned travel chaos into a party atmosphere by handing out free pizza to passengers on grounded planes and at airports.

Their efforts paid off handsomely in goodwill you just couldn’t buy (Love Delta Airlines! tweeted one passenger, and Amazing! tweeted another). 

So what’s it like being your customer? Like the folks at Delta, stop being you for a moment, and start being them. Put yourself in their position and see where it takes you. 

You might be surprised at where you end up.