Live from ACCM: The Importance of Empathy

Boston–Creating empathy for the customer is the cornerstone of establishing a true customer culture. That was the message driven home by David McQuillen during his Wednesday morning keynote address. As vice president of customer experience and “voice of the customer” for financial-services firm Credit Suisse, McQuillen shared with attendees stories about how his team works with senior executives while showing them all the main customer touch points.

McQuillen’s session — “Customer Experience Immersion: Do You Really Know What It’s Like to be in the Shoes of Your Customers?” – focused on how important it is for management to, literally, experience their own company through the customer’s point of view. He views himself and his team as “customer advocates,” kind of like missionaries “preaching the importance of positive customer experience.”

Credit Suisse is in the process of making its company fully accessible to people with disabilities, and to more fully illuminate senior executives, McQuillen created customer immersion programs that included spending time in a wheelchair, eating lunch in the dark, and wearing weighted astronaut-type suits that impair the person’s physical movements, making him move like a person over 70 years old.

In explaining his job, McQuillen – who in 2006 was named by “Fast Company” magazine one of the “top 10 creative minds” – told the audience he thought his job aimed at improving customer experience was running smoothly. That is, until he received a phone call last year from a visually impaired man. “You’re doing a terrible job,” the man told McQuillen. Credit Suisse was not accessible to handicapped people, McQuillen said. “If you have a disability in Switzerland, it’s like being in Jurassic Park,” he said.

Of the roughly 7 million people in the country, about 350,000 have a disability, he said. “We spent about six months taking our business plan from executive to executive about being accessible,” McQuillen said. “It was not a warm reception. This was the kind of attitude we were dealing with. What was missing was empathy for what it was like to be disabled.”

As a result, McQuillen’s staff spent a workday in a wheelchair. Although he and his staff aren’t disabled, the experience of being in a wheelchair was an eye-opener. “People who knew me caught my eye and then looked away,” he said. “I felt embarrassed, a little ashamed. I was completely ignored, like I didn’t exist. We all agreed it was an incredible experience. It had to do with how people treated you. It made us angry with how people treated us.”

Credit Suisse uses experience immersion on every project, McQuillen said. He said about 50 executives participated in a half-day program in which they used wheelchairs, learned how a blind person uses a Website, and learned some basic sign language. “You can’t know the customer experience unless you’ve gone through it yourself,” he said. “We’re hoping to become the first truly accessible bank in Switzerland, and it couldn’t have been possible without customer immersion.”

Those same executives who dismissed McQuillen’s plan for accessibility embraced it after the customer immersion programs.

What about the impact of accessibility on the company’s bottom line? “We’re not sure yet,” McQuillen said. “We have a business plan that shows it should improve the bottom line. We’ll see the impact in the next six months. We showed that being accessible would improve our bottom line. But these guys didn’t feel it. We wouldn’t have moved forward without the empathy.”

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