The Empathy Balancing Act

Date 15.02.2021.
By Cotishea Anderson

I spend many of my days working closely with our customers ensuring we stay on the transformational path we’ve defined with them. During our projects, we must balance our desire to help our customers solve their technical challenges with the practicality of what our team is designed to do. We are focused on project outcomes in a code-with model beside our customers. We often become very close to our customers’ engineering teams because we work with them every day. Our model is to deliver a specific set of solutions, often times they are facing significant business difficulties or big transformation objectives. With a lot of pressure.

We are driven by our passion to bring them solutions. My team is designed to help move them forward and enable their team to accomplish the transformation. My goal is to ensure they are in a better place after I work with them. My focus is helping the customer and my team see how we can tackle the problem together while not overcommitting or overextending our resources. To do this, I have to be focused and strategic about what we do.  

Recently, our team was put to the test.  

We were working with a very important customer who wanted to build a cloud solution for their clients to import and use their existing data more effectively. We defined what success looked like together, set our milestones and began working on the project all-in with them. During one of our key meetings, we were told that they were now under significant pressure to demonstrate that they were making progress on a new cloud offering. They had potentially over-sold the project, unintentionally. They needed to meet a significantly shortened deadline with a scope that was slightly different from what we agreed. In very few words they said their jobs were at risk.  

I gently pushed back to assess the situation but evaluated what it would cost the team to shift some priorities to meet the new request and deadline. As a team, we are always committed to helping our customers, we will rally, work across 5 time zones and put in long hours. Because of their difficult situation, the decision was made to help them deploy an alternative solution which included features we had planned to implement later. 

Their worry became our worry: our customer losing their client which meant they would jeopardize their jobs. 

I was facing a difficult choice, having empathy with where they were and maintaining the health of my team. We had already put in significant human capital and strong progress to make the first milestone of this project a success. My head said, “this ask was monumental” but my heart said, “they are in a tight spot, how can we help them?”.  

As our team evaluated their plan of action to address this new issue, we had doubts that it would ultimately deliver their goals for the project. Yes, it would relieve the pressure in the near term, but it wouldn’t necessarily accomplish their transformation. My team decided we would shift the project focus temporarily, build upon the early project success and momentum we had to create a new pace to help them hit their new milestones. In many ways, we were stretched to our limit, working long hours to meet the new deadlines and we all felt it. We were dedicated, willing to make sacrifices. Would it solve the issue or just be a temporary stop gap? 

As I processed how I would protect the team and support the customer, the question I asked myself was how do I balance customer empathy with the practicality of what we could accomplish? I felt the engineers’ stress trying to maintain our internal commitment to having a good mental and physical balance for ourselves and our families. To manage the tension, I had to set very tight parameters on the new scope, which meant our team had to work longer hours and expend more resources mentally and physically. 

After completing this new phase, the team felt satisfied that we had helped our customer overcome the hurdles they faced, and we fortified this important customer relationship. But what price did we all pay? For the customer, it was the opportunity cost because it didn’t necessarily set them up for the success we had collectively envisioned at the beginning. And it took longer to deliver an intermediary step to the final solution which was obsolete at the end of the project.  

At the time, I wished that I had pushed back differently because accomplishing this new pivot created a lot of refactoring and strain on the team. Instead of “reacting to the crisis today”, I would look more intently at how I can show up to help them creatively solve their challenge with better outcomes for everyone including my team. Going forward, I am mindful that while we want to solve our customers’ problems and help alleviate their worries, we must set up very clear boundaries, we maintain our own health and wellness so that we can be at our best for every customer. 

Let me hear your stories, how do you balance customer empathy and protect your team? 

Author Cotishea Anderson

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