Harvey Nichols

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced radical change in our lives, our work, and our mind-sets. Not only did organizations need to adapt overnight in ways that normally may have taken months or years, these changes keep coming in waves, constantly shifting circumstances and actions needed. Pre-pandemic, we had been taking a close look at how industry disruption was calling for reinvented business models, and documented some of our findings in our research, “Can CEOs Be Un-disruptable?” But the disruptive changes wrought by this pandemic outstrip even our original characterization of disruption.

There have been unprecedented disruptions: employees suddenly working from home en masse; channels for commerce funneled into mandated social distancing; some industries springing up where others have disappeared. Amid this wholesale displacement, business leaders across many industries have responded to the crisis in innovative, humanitarian, and relatively selfless ways. Whether focused inwardly upon their organizations or outwardly toward the world, leaders should be visible, engaged and empathetic.

In the two years preceding COVID-19, we studied those traits that would help business leaders address disruption, and why developing these traits further is important during rapidly changing times. How did they bring their organizations to success and innovation through wave after wave of disruption? “Can CEOs Be Un-disruptable?” lays out these five attributes. The current pandemic — truly a meta-disruption — has placed in sharp focus one of these traits and why it’s called for throughout various levels of leadership. The chief executive officer as ultimate end-user ethnographer sets forth a path that may help retail executives uncover the importance of empathy as beginning to emerge from the crisis, along with ways to increase its quotient at the top, as well as throughout the organization.

Becoming the Ultimate End-User Ethnographer

These times call for companies, including retail organizations, to reach even higher and deeper in their attempts to understand their customers. A shift both in mind-set and methodology may be necessary. With the dislocation brought on by the pandemic, this shift should be guided and modeled directly from the top. Ceo’s and other leaders should themselves strive to gain deeper insight into the customer experience and become trusted champions for discovering their customer’s subtle, often unspoken needs and desires.

These days, those desires may be more clearly and simply articulated than they’ve ever been — however, they are unusual needs, and even these are changing at a rapid pace. Ceo’s should consider asking — and answering — the question, “How can we innovate to solve their problems in new ways, even in ways as yet not envisioned or experienced?” Ceo’s we interviewed expressed a need to achieve an even deeper understanding, one that requires nothing short of getting into the customer’s mind and stepping into their shoes. Some leaders have discovered new ways to directly understand the end-to-end customer experience, from the top of the marketing funnel to exceptional after-sales service on policies and products.

We call this fundamental attribute of undisruptable leaders becoming the ultimate end-user ethnographer. It may require probing the ultimate end-user from which the ceo is so often isolated by bypassing internal or external “mediated” (social) channels of communication. It might even involve ceo’s going incognito among their customers. Often, however, it requires taking on the role of anthropologist and engaging in transparent interview-conversations with customers that are more similar to ethnographic investigations. These are different from focus groups or other inquiries that have a distinct agenda.

The ceo is thus presented with the opportunity to empathize deeply with the people served by the organization, no matter how rigorously or coldly data-driven the operation may otherwise be. Research about trends emerging from COVID-19 suggests that higher empathy leads to stronger financial performance, better customer satisfaction, greater creativity, and even healthier employees. How can leaders model this mind-set and put it into action?

We’re making the case that listening for and collecting customer stories is key to keeping abreast of customer needs, and the ceo should be the one modeling this practice if others are to adopt it. One issue, however, is that historically, formal business ethnographic studies have not scaled well. While this method of direct field research, literally visiting with customers in their own living rooms and chatting with them, is highly instructive and provides an incomparably direct learning experience, there’s clearly a limit to how many such visits can be done.

What can be scaled is an empathy-driven, ethnographic mind-set, especially if it is modeled by the ceo. This mind-set does not ask what customers want. Rather, it strives to tap into how a customer feels and from there, act upon the insights. It requires the ability to understand others’ emotions and points of view — to be able to walk the proverbial mile in another person’s shoes. It means identifying with, and understanding, the customer’s situation and motives.

Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman underscores the importance of this type of empathy. Quoting the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio, he emphasizes that “we are not thinking machines that feel, we are feeling machines that think.” Behavioral economics, as well as the application of other social sciences to business, reaches the same conclusion. We may not spend much time talking about empathy in c-suite circles, but we should, for all sorts of reasons, even beyond the financial returns. For retailers who take this counsel to heart, there exists the opportunity to reemerge even stronger at the other end of this pandemic.

Here are a few ways leaders can become ultimate end-user ethnographers.

  1. Become an “undercover boss.”

In the Emmy-winning TV show “Undercover Boss,” a ceo might pose as a new hire, in disguise and with a simulated backstory, to interact with customers far from the corner office. Invariably, these ceo’s are shocked by some deep insight that they could not have obtained in other ways. Find opportunities to go undercover — for instance, by mystery shopping at your own organization as well as at your competitors’. Putting yourself in the customer’s skin, without judgment, is the fastest way to gain firsthand insight into the ways they experience your organization and offerings.

  1. Collectively create end-user stories.

Have all members of the c-suite conduct ethnographic interviews with end-users to find out how they relate to the company’s product or service. The aim is for each of them, including the ceo, to know their customers on a personal level by engaging with them in their own environment — where they are likely to be most comfortable and most honest. Questions to investigate — both verbally and through conscientious observation — might include:

  • What is important to the customer? What are their overall goals, ambitions, hopes and fears in life? How do they derive gratification, amusement or enjoyment? Is there an object that has a special meaning in their life, and why is this item so important to them?
  • How does the customer relate to people and things? Who or what influences their perspectives and decisions? What physical and digital objects are they attached to, and when, where and how do they express their attachment?
  • What internal signals guide the customer’s actions? What do they think and believe about the world? How do they think about themselves and their comfort with change, and what shapes their willingness to accept or resist change?
  • What are the ways the customer gets through their day? What are their habits, and what makes these habits unique? How do they learn, and what skills and knowledge do they develop?

Central to your inquiry, you might ask customers to show you — not tell you — how they interact with or experience your product or service, and use that time to observe closely. If appropriate, you could even explore the above questions with a person to whom you are already emotionally attached — a teenage child, for example — to leverage your own preexisting inclination to empathize with that person.

A final step is to analyze the collective information the team amasses and use it to create customer personas and end-user stories. Ask the chief marketing officer or chief customer officer for their perspective on what to do with the insights gained. Perhaps the insights are personal to the c-suite, or perhaps they add to the organization’s collection of thick data. No matter what, they are bound to inspire.

  1. Seek customer insights in public digital forums and extrapolate further.

An empathy-driven mind-set can lead to insight in all kinds of places — including online. Customers share their experiences with companies on many digital platforms. Targeted technology is available to mine thousands of social media posts, product reviews, and e-mails that can help you gain insight into what your customers think and how they feel about your products and organization. Collect and share analyses of this “big data” throughout the company while introducing a healthy skepticism about the results — and then pair the data with more intimate, face-to-face conversations with individuals to validate theories and create personal narratives that bring greater meaning to the analytical findings.

For retailers, who have always led the way in understanding their customers, COVID-19 has taught that this is a time to dig even deeper into understanding and empathy. People remember how companies have learned their most subtle needs and treated them based in this insight — and many retailers know that it’s far cheaper to retain existing customers than to attract new ones. This will likely remain an even larger truth post-COVID-19, when those retail leaders who are able to find out their customers’ deepest needs stand to emerge even stronger.

Benjamin Finzi is managing director with Deloitte Consulting LLP, and co-leads Deloitte’s Chief Executive Program. He is based in New York City and can be reached at bfinzi@deloitte.com. Kathy Lu is a senior manager of Deloitte’s Chief Executive Program and can be reached at klu@deloitte.com. Mark Lipton is graduate professor of management at The New School in New York City, an accomplished author, and an eminence and content contributor for Deloitte’s Chief Executive Program. He is based in New York City can be reached at mark@marklipton.com.

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