Empathy as a new customer-oriented approach

On November 20, Nyenrode Business Universiteit celebrated its anniversary, the Dies Natalis. This 73rd Dies Natalis celebration focused on the central theme of customer orientation in the pension sector. Francine van Dierendonck, a member of the management board of pension provider APG and an alumna of Nyenrode’s New Board Program, delivered the keynote speech in which she called for more empathy for and understanding of the actual needs of customers and end users.

Francine van Dierendonck already had a long career in the consumer market before starting her current position at APG. In 2019, we really have to put the customer first, she says: “The customer is always right, even when he or she is wrong. It is up to us to empathize with their needs.”

A privileged situation

In her speech, Van Dierendonck referred to the pyramid in which psychologist Maslow presented a universal hierarchy of human needs: at the base of the pyramid are physiological needs and the need for safety and security, while the upper levels of the pyramid represent the need for appreciation, recognition and self-actualization. Two general rules apply in this model: all individuals try to move up within the pyramid, and you can only climb to a higher level once you have reached the level beneath it. Looking around the room, Van Dierendonck concluded that everyone in the audience was probably at level 5: the level representing the need for self-actualization. “We are all in the privileged situation of having the resources, time, money, competences and skills to work on our self-actualization,” according to Van Dierendonck.

A different life with different needs

Most people are not at the top of the pyramid, however. Van Dierendonck estimates that the average Dutch citizen sits somewhere around level 2 or 3, with safety and security or social contact and a sense of belonging as their driving needs. “Those are our customers. They are the buyers of mass-produced goods for large groups. Many customers have a different life, a different context and therefore also different needs than we do.” As a result, it is important for us to realize that we might be at a different level in the pyramid than the customers with whom we communicate.

Hocus pocus

Recently, Van Dierendonck’s work at pension provider APG has focused almost continuously on potential discounts on pensions as well as matters like the actuarial interest rate, the validation of balance sheets and (sustainable) investing. “This is hocus pocus for many customers, and what matters is the question of how it will affect their net income. For them, it’s all about concrete questions like whether they can still pay the rent next month, whether they have enough money left to take the train to see their grandchildren, and whether they can keep their membership at the tennis club.”

Looking from the outside in

Pension provider APG is a B2B firm, but it actually does not have a customer journey: end users do not have the option to switch. This is determined by law. The 4.5 million participants therefore cannot go anywhere. “What we realized is that especially when end users cannot leave, it is all the more important to empathize with customers’ needs and ensure that we continue to improve our services. We have to look from the outside in.” As the largest pension provider in the Netherlands, APG also wants to help the sector progress further. “Every marketer knows that if you want to hear the real story, you have to learn about the person as well as the context. What drives this person, consciously or unconsciously?”

Anywheres versus somewheres

Still, the changes in Dutch society are also increasingly difficult for many people here to understand and to follow. Examples include fast-paced technological developments, climate change, urbanization and the rise of China as a superpower. There are two opposing value blocks: one group is well-educated and mobile, loves autonomy and openness and is largely unattached to a particular location, while the other group is more firmly rooted and less well-educated, and places greater importance on group relationships, familiarity and safety.

Role of employers

“For me, a customer-oriented approach is about putting yourself in the other’s shoes, listening and having empathy. We focus on the customer to make our companies better every year and to build a competitive advantage. Our role as an employer is becoming increasingly important in an increasingly confusing world that is crying out for empathy and ‘togetherness’.” Van Dierendonck called for employers at the top of the Maslow pyramid to focus on empathy and thus help the Netherlands move forward in order to connect our society.