Posts tagged “empathy”

“Organizational Empathy, from Top to Bottom” published in Appliance

My article Organizational Empathy, from Top to Bottom has been published by Appliance magazine. I consider my experience as an HMO “customer” as a way to look how organizations instill and act on empathy at all levels.

I went online to make a medical appointment recently, and I was surprised that there was no place to explain my symptoms or reasons for needing to see the doctor. When I arrived at the clinic a few days later, a receptionist collected my copayment without any discussion of my situation. I found my assigned room and dropped check-in printout in the appropriate tray. After a moment, my name was called, and a medical assistant brought me back and began administering “treatment.” I was told to stand on a scale, and then brought to a room where she took my blood pressure. Then she wheeled over a device on a pole and produced a long metal probe. She advanced on me with it, pointing it at my face, without saying a word. Bewildered and slightly afraid, I soon realized it was a digital thermometer and that I was supposed to open my mouth (which I did, seconds before impact).

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • The process of converting books to Kindle format introduces errors in the text – The cost of a printed book covers some degree of proofing and checking—not enough, but some. The cost of a Kindle book does not support editorial quality control, and the multi-step conversion process, handled in bulk by third parties, chops out content and creates other errors that no one fixes because no one is there to do QA.

    As the economics of publishing continues to change, perhaps one day soon, a Kindle edition will contain the same text as the printed book. Until it does, Kindle is great for light reading. But if it’s critical that every word, comma, and code sample come through intact, for now, you’re better off with print.

  • The Social History of the MP3 – For Reading Ahead, we're looking at other transitions to digital: "So omnipresent have these discussions become, in fact, that it's possible the past 10 years could become the first decade of pop music to be remembered by history for its musical technology rather than the actual music itself. This is a chastening thought, but at the same time we have to be careful not to overlook how the technologies we invent to deliver music also work to shape our perception of it. When radio came along, its broadcasts created communities of music-listening strangers, physically distant from each other but connected through the knowledge that they were listening to the same song at the same time. Where radio brought listeners together as a listening public, the LP started splitting them apart. The LP and 45 rpm formats took the phonograph, which had been in existence for over half a century, to the masses, right as the American middle-class was going suburban and privatizing their lives."
  • Medical Students Experience Life as Nursing Home Patients – Students are given a “diagnosis” of an ailment and expected to live as someone with the condition does. They keep a daily journal chronicling their experiences and, in most cases, debunking their preconceived notions.

    To Dr. Gugliucci’s surprise, she found nursing homes in the region that were willing to participate and students who were willing to volunteer. No money is exchanged between the school and nursing homes, and the homes agree to treat students like regular patients.

    “My motivation is really to have somebody from the inside tell us what it’s like to be a resident,” said Rita Morgan, administrator of the Sarah Neuman Center for Healthcare and Rehabilitation here, one of the four campuses of Jewish Home Lifecare.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Cows with names produce more milk, scientists say – The story is slightly hyperbolic – a cow with a name is a proxy for all the other differentiating factors in cow-care. "Placing more importance on knowing the individual animals and calling them by name can – at no extra cost to the farmer – also significantly increase milk production. Maybe people can be less self conscious and not worry about chatting to their cows."
    (via @timstock)
  • Time magazine has called Beer Lao Asia’s best local beer, but outside Laos it's almost impossible to find – Like a film festival winner without a distribution deal, the rice-based lager has struggled to turn cult status into anything other than good press. Just 1 percent of its annual production is exported. Lao Brewery hopes to change that. It would like to see 10 percent sold abroad, and it is counting on Vang Vieng’s beer-loving backpackers to help them make the sale.

    Lao Brewery is building a network of fans-turned-distributors who import and sell the beer in select markets. Some distributors are former travelers who see potential in a brand with little international exposure. Others just really like the beer.

Get our latest article, Persona Non Grata

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My first interactions column, Persona Non Grata, has just been published. In the article, I consider some of the fatal problems with personas and how they can hurt while pretending to help.

Get a PDF of the article here. As the interactions website only has a teaser, we’d like to offer a copy of the article. Send an email to steve AT portigal DOT com and tell us your name, organization, and title. We’ll send you a PDF.

See what else we’ve written about personas.

Other articles

Empathy and Innovation

BusinessWeek’s Customer Service Champs supports my plan for innovation through empathy that I outlined previously: Everyone – EVERYONE – will go through the process that their “clients” go through, on a regular basis.

But new research from Katzenbach Partners offers an updated metaphor. The firm stresses the importance of an “empathy engine,” which looks at the role of the entire organization, including middle and senior management, in providing great service. If that engine is thought of as a heart, “the whole company has to pump the customer through it,” says Traci Entel, a principal at Katzenbach Partners who recently studied 13 leading service companies’ best practices. “It starts much further back, with how they organize themselves, and how they place value on thinking about the customer.”

Helping employees become more empathetic with customers was a common focus among the brands on our list. For instance, USAA, whose home and auto insurance are only open to military members and their families, serves new employees MREs (meals ready to eat) during orientation so they can better identify with military life. All frontline workers at Cabela’s, the outfitter famous for its massive retail shrines to hunting, fishing, and camping, partake in a free product-loaner program. Staffers are encouraged to borrow any of the company’s more than 200,000 products for up to two months, so long as they write a review that’s shared via a companywide software system when the goods are returned. That’s not only a perk for employees; it also helps them better empathize with product issues customers might have.

But few places make empathizing with customers quite as luxurious an experience as Four Seasons Hotels. At most of its properties, the final piece of the seven-step employee orientation is something the chain’s executives call a “familiarization stay” or “fam trip.” Each worker in these hotels, from housekeepers to front-desk clerks, is given a free night’s stay for themselves and a guest, along with free dining.

While there, employees are asked to grade the hotels on such measures as the number of times the phone rings when calling room service to how long it takes to get items to a room. “We bill it as a training session,” says Ellen Dubois du Bellay, vice-president of learning and development. “They’re learning what it looks like to receive service from the other side.”

What would you do if they gave you the job?

A few months ago I received a press inquiry from James Pethokoukis of US News & World Report. He wrote:

Mr. Portigal,

I am currently writing a story on innovation for US News & World Report, and I trying to cast a wide net for ideas and insights. Let me ask you this: If you were appointed America’s Innovation Czar (no idea what such a gig would pay), what three things — include more if you wish — would you recommend that government do to foster innovation or make our economy and/or government more innovative? I am trying to get beyond “push kids to study science more” or “cut capital gains taxes.” Any insights would be most appreciated!

It’s kind of a crazy question, but what the heck. I sent in a long answer, but I guess it never made it into the piece. Anyway, I’ll share it with you all here…

If I was given this prestigious new position, I would do a few things. I would demystify the sense of innovation by encouraging problem solving in small areas. For example, the San Francisco Chronicle (as do many other newspapers) runs a regular section called Chronicle Watch. In it they present reader-reported problems typically in public space. A misleading sign, a broken curb, construction materials left behind, a trip hazard, rotting stairways, littered highways, and so on. They also publicize the agency and individual responsible. When fixes are made, they publish their results, or when fixes are delayed, they update the status. The fixes themselves are not innovations. Repairing a curb, fixing a handrail, posting a sign – these are solutions we’ve long since known how to create. The problem is why these situations recur and are so challenging to address. The Chronicle is an attempt, at least, at an innovation in process. Cutting through bureaucracy where possible, although sometimes their failures highlight the difficulty of doing that. My point here is that there is a great deal of small improvement to be done; sanding off the rough edges of the things we touch every day. It won’t create a new Internet or iPod to do this, but solving these small problems (that are hard to solve) will improve the underlying fabric of everyday life. Buckminster Fuller spoke of the “trimtab” – the small change that has a big effect; perhaps finding ways to address this sort of thing would qualify.

I would introduce empathy processes into government, especially departments that interact with the public or with businesses. Everyone – EVERYONE – will go through the process that their “clients” go through, on a regular basis (say, once per year). DMV clerks who stand in line (as the obvious example) will have an opportunity to see what the “other half” experiences.

The neat trick with empathy is that it leads to understanding, and then leads to problem solving. Seeing what the tax filing process is like from the perspective of someone else begins to suggest how it might be improved. There are lots of examples of this in business, many that go even further such as the elder-suits that car designers wear to restrict their mobility, sight, and so on. Since they can already drive a car, there’s little empathy (or problem solving) created until they more accurately simulate the conditions of their “users.”

A goal would be for the government to develop a set of best practices for user-centered-design – where design is making anything that gets used or experienced by someone else, apply those as broadly as possible throughout government, and then help businesses adopt more of these into their own practices. The thrust being to get people out of their own environments and their own mindsets, into the moccasins of those who are they are trying to serve. Creating empathy, understanding, and problem solving.

That would remake life in our culture, and if that isn’t an innovation, I don’t know what is!

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