Recognising the importance of making customers feel valued, corporations for years have been building shortcuts to care, applying the same logic of efficient production to that of customer service – minimum effort for maximum output. In place of investing human time and effort, organisations have turned to chatbots, automated phone calls and feedback forms boasting the phrase, ‘We’d love to hear from you.’ Time after time, customers are left at the other end of a prolonged and overcomplicated phone call muttering in frustration, ‘I just want to talk to a person.’
The impact of genuine human care is hard to overstate. While automation has worked its way into most industries, I do believe there are some things that only humans will be able to do for a long while yet. We may be able to automate care-giving, but we can’t automate caring. ChatGPT might be able to recreate sincere-sounding writing, but it can’t write with sincerity. The virtues of compassion and empathy are uniquely human.
The individuals and organisations who do best with customers are the ones who understand this very principle, and are willing to put in the time and effort that necessarily comes with genuine care.
A few years ago, behavioural scientist David Strohmetz set out to uncover the effect of making restaurant customers feel special on how much they would tip a server. Servers were instructed to give diners a piece of candy for each person at the table when presenting the bill. In comparison to not giving a piece of chocolate at all, this gesture saw a fairly small increase of 3.3% in the amounted tipped. When it was two chocolates, tips rose by 14.1%.
However, one small adjustment made an even bigger difference. In the third experiment, after offering each of the diners a piece of chocolate from her basket, the server turned to walk away then stopped. She then turned around, walked back to the table and offered a second piece of chocolate to each diner – almost as if it were an afterthought or spontaneous gesture. This simple ‘performance’ saw tips rise by an enormous 21.3% percent.
While making a performance of care is certainly not something to be recommended, what this experiment highlights is just how powerful an act of human attention and care can be. Making customers feel special draws on their natural human desire to feel connected to others, and dramatically impacts their perception of and response to an organisation.
One of the most striking examples of corporate behemoths caring for customers comes from innovation giant Procter & Gamble (P&G). Following a dramatic dip in company earnings a few years ago, stock prices were sent plummeting 31 per cent overnight. Against this turbulent backdrop, new CEO A. G. Lafley was tasked with turning things around.
Lafley instantly set about returning P&G’s culture to one of external focus. Historically the company had been famous for making decisions based on deep customer understanding but over the years it had gradually become more inward-looking. In an effort to address this culture, Lafley instigated a new company mantra: ‘The customer is boss.’ Lafley was making it clear to staff that neither he as CEO, nor the board or shareholders were boss – the person that mattered, the person ‘in charge’, was the customer.
Staff throughout the organisation were urged to focus on the consumer experience and subsequently became obsessed with empathising with the customer — to the extent of spending time living with them, shopping with them and working alongside them.
Many of P&G’s more legendary products in recent years came as a result of this empathy obsession. For instance, the Swiffer product range originated from watching a woman grow frustrated when she spilled coffee grounds on her kitchen floor.
While genuine care works best if it is integral to a company’s entire approach to customers, it still makes considerable impact as a response to times when things have already gone wrong.
Following damning criticism during the banking Royal Commission, Commonwealth Bank’s CEO Matt Comyn exemplified a version of leadership characterised by sincere care. Taking responsibility and offering profuse apology for the mishaps of the past, he overhauled the leadership, agreed to immense fines and proactively ensured staff were embedded in the company to monitor their adherence to regulations.
While all of this was necessary and expected, Comyn went further to write to each of the bank’s 8 million customers seeking input and feedback, hired additional staff to deal with complaints and then became personally involved in dealing with the most serious and long-standing disputes. His personal humility and the sincerity of his care set him apart from many other leaders.
How is the relationship with customers prioritised in your organisation? How much do you care about care? The reality is that in a world of often cutthroat capitalism, fast-paced business and impersonal automation, the fundamental currency that moves people to action is care. The ultimate strategy to get your company ahead of the game is to out-care your competition. By doing so, you will stand out, build genuine trust and rapport, and add value to your business by offering value to the customer.
Michael McQueen is a trends forecaster, business strategist and award-winning conference speaker.
He features regularly as a commentator on TV and radio and is a bestselling author of 9 books. His most recent book The New Now examines the 10 trends that will dominate a post-COVID world and how to prepare for them now.
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 Goldstein, N. et al. 2008, Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to be Persuasive, Simon and Schuster, New York, pp. 53-55.
 Anthony, S. 2017, The Little Black Book of Innovation, Harvard Business School Publishing, p. 116.
 Yeates, C. 2019, ‘Big Task Ahead: How Comyn Is Trying To Win Back Trust In CBA’, The Sydney Morning Herald, 6 April