Archive for 2009/08/23

The risk of placing yourself in the shoes of the customer

On my first professional job, I was doing a lot of short consultant gigs and the lack of experience combined with the shortness of some of the assignments sometimes lead to some embarrassing situations where my lack of empathy became evident. With that I don’t mean that I didn’t care about the customers, it was just that I tried to place myself in their shoes and to see how their work could be made more effective. Well, isn’t that being empathic? Not necessarily. 

We’re being learnt that you should treat others like you would yourself like to be treated, that you should place yourself in another person’s situation and this will lead to yourself becoming more empathic to others. Well, this is sort of true but only in situations where your values and person are the same as the other person. Let’s say a robbery: you don’t want to be mugged and no one else would like to be mugged either. But take other things like being able to drive your car faster, one person can think that this would just be great while others see no need and some think the speed is already too high.

Another situation is of course the customer communication. I love companies which enables me to contact them over the web. I booked a service time for my bike yesterday and I just loved that I early a Saturday morning without having to speak to someone could just visit their web site, pick out a free service time and be done with it. My mother on the other hand is the calling type. She wants to talk to someone. So, to be empathic with her needs if I was to improve customer relations, couldn’t simply place myself in her situation; I would have to recognize our differences too. Me in her shoes is not her.

So, when I was out on my short assignments, the mistake I made was thinking myself on their position and trying to figure out what should be improved. And sometimes that was disaster. The first time I really took notice of this was when I visited a person who used Excel to gather information from 30 districts. I wasn’t there about that task, but he brought it up, since he had problems with a formula.

I directly spotted the real problem. The districts formed their own spreadsheets and sent them in to this guy, who copied all these 30 variants into one workbook. To summarize, he had to spot the right value on each spreadsheet. Of course, Excel was not the right tool for this, but that was what they had, so my suggestion was that he would send out a standard workbook to all districts, make them fill out the forms where the same value was in the same cell. Copy this to a common workbook and then use formulas which calculated the same cells (for example E4) on all spreadsheets.

I quickly showed him how this would be done. He was silent. Well, he said, I spend about 3 months every year making these summaries and using this method, it would take ten minutes. I wonder if I can keep my job.


I would have hated that tedious and meaningless task, but for him it was his work and he could see no other tasks which he could perform.

Well, of course we shouldn’t accept the wasting of organizations’ money and time and just leave things like this untouched. But I should have shown more empathy towards this guy and recognized that he was proud of his work, a pride I ripped from him in a minute.

Having met a lot of administrative staff, I’ve often seen the same. When a bunch of consultants storm into their office, ready to make everything smoother, they know that they want to get rid of the stuff they do. Seeing themselves doing other tasks might not be that easy. You and me might do that, but don’t take it for granted in others. Don’t place yourself in their shoes. Recognize that you’re not wearing those sneakers; they are.

Their actions might also be strange to you. Many hang on to specific details which they state are mandatory for the process. One common example are ID:s. In many manual processes, people are required to know ID:s by heart. “The object ID is 73645256 A4” and a highly effective member of staff can be the person who knows all these numbers and their history. When a new system is introduced, knowing these numbers can become unnecessary and that changes the knowledge hierarchy of the organization.

The key is knowing that we’re all different and getting to know your customers before barking in on their processes. Spending some time during breaks can give you many hints about the different personalities. Management should also be open with what an improvement in process will mean for the people involved.

Categories: Agile, Business, Leadership