Establishment empathy

Corporates need to connect with customers in real, emotional ways


The latest FNB/BER Business Confidence Index shows that South Africans have not been as uncertain about their economic wellbeing since the third quarter of 2020, which was at the peak of the pandemic.

Given constant loadshedding, high inflation, a steep electricity price hike, higher interest rates and a weak rand, this is hardly surprising. In general, people are looking towards a long winter of discontent.

Surprisingly, though, many businesses are finding that their customers are not basing their purchasing decisions on price alone. Instead, it is excellent customer service that is most important to customers. Better products and services are on a par with price, in joint second place, when it comes to importance.

A poll by customer experience company nlightencx found that ‘it all comes down to price’ was only listed by 22% of respondents as their decisive factor. ‘Great customer experience’ came out tops (56%), with ‘better products/services’ also listed by 22% of respondents.

What this tells businesses is that a knee-jerk strategy based on internal cost-cutting and the lowest possible price point is unlikely to deliver the expected results.

Consumers are looking for a good deal and can be expected to be more fickle than usual when it comes to customer loyalty and being willing to switch products and suppliers. But these consumers are also savvy enough to know that ‘good deal’ and ‘lowest price’ are seldom the same thing.

Human Touch

The bottom line is that businesses need to have empathy; to recognise the current price-consciousness in the market while understanding that modern consumers are often unwilling to trade low price for an inferior product offering and a bad customer experience.

It is a basket of expectations. Get any one of them wrong and customer loyalty goes out the window – more so now than in good times.

Rapidly eroding customer loyalty is borne out by international research. Salesforce, a global customer relationship management software company, published a 29-country study last year entitled State of the Connected Customer, which found that 71% of consumers had switched brands at least once in the preceding 12 months “as priorities, lifestyles or financial situations changed”.

Of these, nearly half made the change because of customer service, while nearly 60% did so because of product quality. And almost 90% (the highest total since 2018) believed the experience a company provides is as important as its products or services.

Writing in Forbes magazine, contributor Brian Solis, a renowned digital anthropologist and futurist, agrees that empathy is vital. 

He refers specifically to ‘digital empathy, which he defines as “the ability to humanise customer behaviours, preferences and aspirations through the connection between human-centred data, insights, and the meaningful customer engagement powered by those insights”.

An over-reliance on technology – particularly as businesses look to trim staffing costs – can be the antithesis of a good customer experience. Right now, AI is all the rage, and it has its place. But real human interaction will usually trump the bots.

Empathy through tech should be used sparingly and responsibly. Understand that people need to be heard and their queries seen to. If a bot can’t do that effectively, don’t even go there.

Elevate interactions

Businesses looking to deliver customer experience excellence and retain client loyalty should consider the following:

  • Empathise: Consumers are uncertain, and they’re hurting. Take some time to talk to your clients and understand what they are going through. See how you can adjust their plans or contracts to suit their financial situation at this time.
  • Communicate your intentions: Take this empathy and include it in all your communication so that your client knows that you are behind them.
  • Walk the walk: People will pick up on meaningless slogans and empty marketing promises and use them against you. Make meaningful and deliverable undertakings.
  • Meet your client where they are at: Communicate via the channels that work best for them – not the cheapest and easiest for you.
  • Don’t get too caught up in automated customer experience – not when your customer is vulnerable: Also remember that automated customer experience is easily replicated by your competitors, eroding any point of competitive difference.


Text: Nathalie Schooling

Nathalie Schooling is CEO of nlightencx. For more information, go to

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