With the rise of digital transformation and automation, a company is no longer a contained place with employees inside and customers outside. It's not even a transparent box where your customers see inside your company. It is a thin membrane where customers enter and exit, directly experiencing all your company operations. Companies were always a type of community, but automation has made customers an integral part of your company, equal to employees. People join your company's community to solve problems. If they feel comfortable, they stay to build relationships with your company, employees, and each other because of honesty, transparency, and accountability, which is driven and motivated by compassion. And this compassion, honesty, transparency, and accountability, build trust and safety.
Such company communities don't get their inspiration from the company's or product's success. Community forms by people supporting an idea that they can be part of, co-own, and contribute to, helping it grow, in their own way. Customers and employees rally around a solution to a problem. Employees are driven to solve customer problems, and that action influences, motivates, and inspires customers to feel compassion for other customers and help them solve their problems. Success in such a community comes from transparency and accountability that are the result of honesty and openness. Honesty and openness equalize power between everyone in the community to build psychological safety, which builds trust. The feeling of psychological safety enables compassion so customers can highlight the issues and challenges they face and get them solved without worrying about retaliation or ridicule. Same with employees inside the company. All feedback is considered to be good feedback to help solve problems.
Devoted brand fans feel this towards their beloved brands. They feel that they can communicate with a brand openly and clearly to share their thoughts, feedback, and complaints and expect their grievances to be addressed or recommendations implemented.
Does psychological safety mean that a company or team is problem-free? Far from it! In the book Social Chemistry, Marissa King explains what this means based on Amy Edmonson's research:
"During graduate school, Edmondson was studying high-performing hospital teams. She administered surveys to capture how well teams worked together and observed them in action. Reasonably, she expected that high-performing teams would have fewer medical errors. But when she analyzed the data, she found just the opposite. The teams who worked together well had the highest error rates. And the difference was huge. Edmondson was puzzled. Why would better teams have higher error rates? Eventually, she realized that the good teams weren't necessarily making more mistakes but were simply more likely to admit to errors, discuss them, and learn from them.
Psychological safety isn't about being nice. "What it's about is candor," according to Edmondson. "What it's about is being direct, taking risks, being willing to say, 'I screwed that up.' Being willing to ask for help when you're in over your head."
Such a situation can only happen when power is equalized. It's only then that people may feel that they can honestly share the good and the bad. They share the bad with hopes to make improvements to their environment, thereby making their world better. That is why neither accountability nor great brand communication alone builds trust. A psychologically safe feeling in a group can only happen when an equalization of power exists in the relationship dynamics. In this case, the entity holding power, the company and its representatives in the hierarchy, shouldn't be looking to punish an employee for comments or feedback that is critical of them or their policies. The leader with the power role should want to improve the experiences and understand that feedback is necessary for this to happen. Curiosity brings that general desire to make everything better in an organization – asking why to know what's broken, understand what's working, and find a way to improve the situation. But there is a catch to achieve this: the individual who has power in the relationship demonstrates vulnerability by expressing curiosity and asking for help from others, expresses emotion and humanity, and is comfortable being vulnerable in sharing the weakness that the organization and the team aren't perfect. Power needs to be equalized, and this is true not just for teams in companies but how companies treat customers.
The irony is that in a company's customer relationship, the customers have the power. They pay for the goods that the company makes. They provide the company revenue to survive. Without customers, there is no company. So that begs the question: why do companies treat customers so poorly at times? The only answer I can think of is power. The company believes that it has to have the customer live up to its expectation of the "ideal" customer, not that the customer has free will to walk away from the company if the company doesn't meet the customer's expectations.
How do companies equalize power and recognize the agency of the customer, helping them to feel safe? Let's consider five ways a compassionate company can support a culture of safety and vulnerability with its customers and equalize power to improve the business and customer relationships.
First, companies listen to their customers, resolve their issues, and welcome discussion rather than blame them or make them feel inadequate for speaking up. An easy way to know if companies are willing to listen to their customer's feedback is that they provide easy access to call center contact information, which invites customers to contact them to have a discussion. Not all issues can be resolved through online help, a chatbot, or AI. A call between employees and customers may be necessary when a customer is so frustrated with what's happening that he needs a verbal hug and help from someone who cares.
Aveda is a company that always accepts calls. They go a little over the top to replace a product at all times. They did this with a faulty shampoo cap. It got to the point they were asking me not to order it online when what should have happened is that they should have encouraged me to order online and pick it up from a local distributor in person until the packaging snafu was resolved. Amazon hides their contact info a bit – you need to search to access chat rather than them making it ubiquitous through a link in the footer. However, their chat experience is fantastic! The agents are transparent and helpful. In one case, the agent told me that I couldn't access a video because the content provider didn't set it up properly. That was helpful to know. Hiding such information from customers doesn't really serve Amazon. However, Amazon's motivations for actions aren't always focused on the customer, although the customer benefits. When a package is not delivered for whatever reason, they try to automate the process of getting a replacement product or making returns easy, but is that for the customer or them to save money in the end by reducing call volumes? Based on my observations, I'd argue the latter.
Second, trusted companies don't lie to customers or gaslight them. They tell them the truth and are transparent.If you tell your customers the truth, they will be more open with your company. Mutual truth-telling builds a safe environment.
Here's a tale of two companies and how they handle bugs. Let's start with LinkedIn. I tried to publish a blog post on their site, and it wasn't working on Chrome or Safari. I sent them a note and asked them to help me fix it. They told me the problem was on my end. They asked me to clear my cache and login and log out and back in again about three times as if I hadn't already done that on my own as if these actions would magically fix the issue. Nothing worked. However, after three days, the publish feature magically worked. They never followed up to let me know they fixed it. When I tried to follow up and find out what happened, they treated me as if I had made up the bug situation. But looking at the thread, it seems that they were fixing the bug in the meantime and didn't want to tell me that.
Amazon publishing had a different approach. I was trying to upload an image for my book up to nine times, and each time it was unsuccessful. I finally called them. I learned that they had a bug that they were desperately trying to fix. They told me not to upload anything for 24 hours because it just won't work. They were fixing the bug. I appreciated their candor and didn't feel gaslit because they heard me, were transparent, and helped. That's great customer service!
Wix did something similar. I got a call from a client that their site wasn't working on mobile. I called Wix support, and yes, they got a flood of calls that something was broken. They made it clear during the call that it wasn't my fault. And they let me know when it was fixed.
I now trust Wix and Amazon publishing after these experiences. I don't trust LinkedIn. I believe that they will eventually fix an issue on their site, but they won't tell me the truth about what's happening. I don't feel as safe with them as I do with Wix and Amazon when reporting an issue to get it fixed. They are far more accountable and honest.
Third, companies with a culture of safety recognize and acknowledge that a customer may have a valid perspective when they see a problem with your business. That doesn't mean that the customer is correct on any matter, and in fact, they may be factually incorrect. It's your job to listen to them – that's the meaning of the customer is always right. It's not literal. It's figurative. And it doesn't mean that you need to change your company to accommodate them.
But the challenge that the business owner has is not to be defensive and instead be curious and open to consider the problem through the customer's perspective and create a solution that solves that problem.
This even applies to much of what is happening today when a customer may not want to wear a mask. According to them and their perspective, they are right, regardless of the science. As a business, you need to understand their perspective on your policy as objectively as possible. But you don't need to change your business for them. You can listen, tell them politely no or no thank you, and if they refuse to comply, ask them to leave. The customer may be right in their view of themselves, but if that view is not congruent to your company's policy, you don't need to change your policy for them. There have been countless videos of employees at Costco, Trader Joe's, and Whole Foods showing precisely this – maintaining the policy in the face of a different and factually incorrect worldview - and it was impressive. It was painful and horrible for those employees to experience; however, they didn't bend. And that’s what it means to be a compassionate company that values psychological safety.
I'd like to share a customer story related to this regarding Amex. I had this credit program with them for over 12 years that I wanted to remove. After multiple requests, they wouldn't end my involvement in the program, and at times they would lie to me about the implications of removing myself from it. Or I'd somehow get myself removed from the program for about six months, and it would magically return as a "benefit." It's not a benefit. It's a way for Amex to keep you working with them by owing them more and more money. They designate some purchases as being purchased on credit automatically and the functionality to adjust amounts and terms isn't easy to find. They told me it was but didn't provide guidance for how to update purchase thresholds. Anyway, one day, I had enough and spent a literal day on the phone with up to five different people to confirm that they removed this program from my account. During one call, a guy told me that my understanding of how the program worked was wrong when I was, indeed, right. It was pure gaslighting. And others I spoke to told me that I did understand the program but refused to admit that it was hurting customers. Trust me – when you call customer service about a company's problem, you are never the only one calling. They knew the problem. Anyway. After all that drama, I finally exited the program, but sadly, the damage was done with my brand relationship with Amex. I don't respect or trust them because they didn't want to hear my perspective, and they insisted on confirming that they were right. So, in the future, Amex will be right by their policies – and eventually, not have my business.
Fourth, such a company allows customers to contribute to making its products and services. I can't stress enough how important it is to include customers in your business, even to make products and services. It's so easy to help customers feel included in your business and feel part of it. It equalizes the power structure because through their contributions in communities and feedback calls, they feel that they are part of your company's team, equal to your employees and business. This creates community because the customers can meet each other and realize that they are part of something bigger than themselves. They see that many people have the same problem to solve, and your company has a solution that can help them. It's good for people to feel that they aren't alone.
I often will share the story of the day I received an email with a customer survey, asking for feedback from Apple. At the time, Apple never asked for customer feedback, but this particular day, they did. It felt like an honor to provide it. I often will provide companies feedback when asked. I have noticed people's faces change during user feedback sessions when you ask for their opinion. Most people are thrilled to provide input and feedback.
There are many ways to gather customer feedback. Here are a few:
- Customer councils and advisory groups. Everyone wins when customers are involved in creating a solution for themselves. Customers know what they want to do and which solutions will work for them. They may not know their exact problem or solution, but they know that what they are doing today isn't working. This is why design thinking is critical to creating better products.
- Customer support. They are talking to the customer all day, every day, about their problems. Those calls provide amazing insight into who the customer is, their problems, and what they need to succeed.
- Calling and talking to customers. They don't bite. Call customers often to get feedback. It may be better to call them as part of a study to get a broader, more constructed picture of customer trends, but always feel free to contact them and solicit their opinions. They may have an idea that is a competitive game-changer.
- Chat and chatbot sessions. Read and analyze the sessions to learn what people are saying and clicking. That will tell you what they care about and where their passions lie.
- Observe customer behavior. They are communicating through action. That is feedback too!
- They provide quick feedback from an extensive sampling of customers to understand their points of view. It works best with quantitative methods due to scale and speed. Gather input quickly at a single time or have an ongoing program. It's a great temperature check to know if your company is on target.
- Reviews are a great place where customers can share their experience with your company. If you get one bad review, know that more out there feel similarly but don't have the courage to share their experience. Be curious as to why they feel as they do.
And don't forget to listen to their feedback and use it to make changes. Make sure you are gaining meaningful insights for change. Doing this will help your organization understand:
- your customer's passions,
- what drives them in life,
- how your customers view the problems that they are having,
- their motivations to have these problems solved,
- the values they use in how they make decisions,
- and how they see their lives changing once this problem is solved.
Why do passions matter? Knowing customer passions can help you understand what may cause their suffering. If a company is passionate about its customers, then there will be an upset if there are customer issues using the products. If your company doesn't deliver on its product promises, that will impact your employees and customers. If your customers use your product in their job that provides for their families and they are passionate about them, then your product not delivering on expectations will impact that job and their livelihood, indirectly impacting their families. When you understand the ways your product impacts different groups, you have a different view of who customers are and what they truly need.
And fifth, at such a company, employees love their customers, and your employees are motivated to help them. We like to believe that our employees love our customers, but often they don't. Employees may be polite to customers during support calls and the sales process, but that doesn't mean they like or respect them. We can all sense when someone feels pity, contempt, or disdain for us; we can hear it in someone's voice. So can your customers. Your policies, product and features, and communication methods carry this as attitude through tone and actions. Customers can perceive such subtleties in a customer experience, which is why emotional engagement with them is so important.
My stories with LinkedIn and Amex are both examples of employees not really caring about customers. If the employees of these organizations truly cared about me as a customer, they would have helped me. They didn't. Their drive to maintain a public perception of the company was greater than that of helping the customer. There is no shame in an app having bugs. They all do. There is no shame in offering a product that helps some customers and not others. That's business. But know who it can help and who it can't help. Being open and honest about that is good business and builds a solid customer relationship. It shows that the employees and the company cares to help people, not just fatten their bottom lines.
Notice that none of the advice shared about building a safe customer environment and trust involves money. Trust and psychological safety involve how your employees and company treat people. Respect and love are the first steps to build a more compassionate company. Customers know when employees objectify them, generalize and trivialize their problems, or feel contempt or sympathy. It's this objectification that reduces connections. Creating compassionate workflows and processes using these points as guidance can help bridge this gap between your company and customers and maintain consistent experiences, so customers feel that your company cares and wants to help them solve their problems.