KU business school dean stresses empathy with customers at Economic Summit

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— The concept of seeing the world through another person’s eyes is common and comes off as rather cloying. It even can be encapsulated in a single word: empathy.

The group of business leaders gathered at the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association’s Economic Summit didn’t need a Ph.D. business professor and the dean of the University of Kansas School of Business to travel here to reiterate the worth of that concept.

But, as Neeli Bendapudi said to start her keynote speech, to make every single member of your company see the world Through the Lens of the Customer is harder than open-heart surgery or rocket science.

“We all want our employees to be thinking as if they were owners of the institution,” Bendapudi said Thursday morning.

“No matter what line of business, you’re trying to attract new customers, but at every instance, you have leaks in that bucket, and that’s customers that leave you for other business or exit the market,” she said. “You try to plug the holes. That’s what TLC is about.”

Bendapudi outlined the process to seeing Through the Lens of the Customer that starts with focusing on whom you serve. Defining who are the customers can be much broader than just who buys the product. Companies also serve employees, founders, vendors and whoever else interacts with the company.

Seeing through their lens requires moving away from the traditional conceptions of your product, Bendapudi said, and moving toward recognizing what the core benefit is that is being purchased.

Using the example of toothpaste, she said that after drilling down to what the benefit was to a group of students, it became clear what they were buying was a kissable mouth. It wasn’t tartar control or preventing future dental work. If you focus too much on the product rather than what people are actually buying, she said, someone will come in and provide a kissable mouth with a product that isn’t toothpaste.

Understanding the expectations and needs of customers also is a key part of TLC.

Expectations tend to be rational, she said, but needs are emotional.

“We’re emotional beings who are really good at rationalizing,” Bendapudi said.

Although she said she doesn’t teach as much recently, Bendapudi still had the style of an engaged professor, asking questions of the attendees and offering anecdotes to make her points more memorable.

To emphasize how the emotional responses of customers can affect products, she told the story of how instant coffee was marketed toward women. Research showed that even though women could not taste the difference between instant and regular coffee, instant coffee had the negative connotation of being a neglectful mother. To remedy this association, the marketing showed women who drank instant coffee being able to spend the time they weren't using to make coffee to care for their families.

Bendapudi also spoke about setting standards and making sure you’re rewarding employees for behavior that reaches the right outcomes. If you want better customer service from call center employees, don’t measure how long it takes them to answer a call. That incentivizes putting customers on hold or rushing their calls.

Few customers actually take the time to complain to a company when they feel mistreated, Bendapudi said.

“If someone takes the time to bring you a problem, think of it as an incredible gift,” she said. “It means they have not given up on you.”

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206, email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com or follow him on Twitter @MLSchrantz

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