Service Leaders – Stay Real

In a nutshell

Studies have shown that we will empathise more and offer more assistance to identifiable victims compared to larger groups of people. This is called the Identifiable Victim Effect.

The Identifiable Victim Effect takes place within organisations when management teams over-rely on (de-humanised) reports and statistics. The impact is that they miss opportunities to address customer complaints and recurring obstacles that customer-facing employees contend with on a day-to-day basis.

The message is for Leaders to stay real by going to the source – to listen directly to complaints and to customer-facing employees. 

Examples of how to do this are given.


Imagine this.

You are stopped in the street by someone asking for a donation.

The person says, “Please make a donation for the education of poor African children.

Think about your reaction.

Now, rewind and let’s start this scenario again.

You are stopped in the street by someone asking for a donation.

The person shows you a photo of an African girl. The person says, “Your donation of just $10 will pay for 3 months of education for 6 year old Akinya”.

Now, what is the difference in your reaction?

The studies will show the person with the photo of Akinya will raise more money.

We are now talking about what is known as the Identifiable Victim Effect.

In short, “poor African children” are a statistic. Akinya is a person. This personalisation brings greater levels of reality, empathy and action in response to the request for the donation.

So, what has this got to do with the customer experience?

Lots. Let me explain.

Let me zoom you into an organisation that provides customer service. It’s a pretty big organisation, where there are layers of management between customer facing staff and management.

The senior management team gets data on customer complaints. The data does not shout out the pain behind the complaints. They are just dehumanized statistics.

The impact is that management teams, faced with lots of other statistics, often does not give customer complaints – nor the customer-facing staff who are struggling to deal with complaints – the priority that they deserve.

One hospital in Singapore addressed this issue. It went beyond the statistics by bringing a selection of complaining customers to the hospital on Saturday afternoons. These meetings, nicknamed “scold sessions” by the hospital, were attended by members of the senior management team. By listening to the anger, frustration and pain behind the complaints, the team became much more connected with what has happening on the ground.

It did not stop at listening. The mission for the leaders who attended was to address the issues within a set period of time.

What happened here? The victims were now identified. The issues were real to the leaders. And they took action. This hospital went from being a low performer to a significantly higher performer in terms of patient satisfaction.

The Identifiable Victim Effect also applies to the way that management teams listen to employees in organisations.  We have had customer-facing employees crying out in pain and frustration. They felt that their fundamental day-to-day requests to management to help them provide good customer service eg in terms of resources, equipment, equipment breakdowns and processes, were falling on deaf ears. The impact was less-then desired levels of customer service.

And, yes, this happens  in organisations every day, right around the world.

The simple reason is that senior management is detached from what is happening on the ground. The victims – employees – are dehumanised. The push for cost cuts and higher performance continues. The senior management teams are concerned with pushing the statistics higher and higher – but have de-humanised the employee side of the equation.

Our office in Germany ran a highly successful process with a major client whereby the top 10% of managers had to spend time in customer-facing positions. The impact was enormous. This experience helped them to empathise with the difficult issues that the customer-facing employees deal with every day. And, of course, with the empathy came different leadership actions.

The message in this article is simple: Leaders – stay real.

And to do this, do not rely just on impersonal reports, spreadsheets and statistics. For if do, you may find that you may be missing out on opportunities to improve the customer experience. Get real by humanising the experience. Go beyond your comfort zones and talk to unhappy customers. Find out what is happening on the ground by observing and talking to your people.

There is one very famous entrepreneur who stays real. Richard Branson. He is renowned for writing in his notebook as he talks to and learns from his employees and to customers.

Richard is definitely real.

Food for thought.

Until next time.

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