Being customer-centric is more than building the right design strategy: it means embedding empathy. At Hellon, we talk about the empathy ladder. This ladder has three key milestones: building empathy for the end user of your product, service or experience; educating your product teams in empathy; and building empathy throughout your organisation.

I would like to highlight these points with the help of a few case studies.

1. Building empathy for the end-user of your product, service, or experience

This is about working face to face with your customers. Forget focus groups— go into their homes! And make sure you prototype and iterate, fast. Whether it’s prototyping digital products or life-size cardboard pharmacies, don’t be afraid to make and build.

A highly relevant case study is Finavia, Finland’s airport operator. Finavia wanted to support Helsinki Airport in becoming the leading transfer airport for Northern Europe, and to this end launched the globally unique TravelLab project, which involved service concepts being tested during the transfer experience.

Together with Hellon, they tested 12 different kinds of new service prototypes chosen from 200 improvement ideas gathered from passengers. These included pop-up yoga classes and midsummer celebrations, as well as technical services such as digital boards on the gate buses providing information. All were live prototypes, quickly set up and changed if they weren’t working. Nine hundred passengers took part across 75 days.

During the process, TravelLab invited passengers to play an active role in designing better transfer experiences. What was really happening was an agile, human-centric process of service design and prototyping, with a large corporation openly taking part in co-creation.

The project was a prize-winning success, and Helsinki Airport won an award as the best airport in Northern Europe, based on Skytrax’s international airport survey.

But most importantly, building empathy for the user helped deliver solutions that resonated most with the customer, instead of the common approach of speculating on what they customer might want and then trying to verify it.

2. Educate your project teams in empathy.

Build a training structure for your teams, get them to partake in empathetic activities such as role-playing, and create ownership and skills.

Danske Bank put forty managers from four countries onto a real project together. Together with Hellon they were taught to use service design methodologies on a process level. Specifically: insights, end-to-end experience and prototyping. They learned how to apply it to their daily work of developing banking products for B2B and B2C customers. The project lasted four months with regular briefing sessions on the upcoming tools and methods, coaching each team hands-on. Its overall success was on two levels: on a project level, participants abandoned tech or compliance lead decisions and moved towards a truly customer-centric product.

The second, and probably biggest success, was a change of mindset: realising how much time and money could be saved and how much growth achieved by working in a customer-centric way, and really focussing on what delivers customer satisfaction.

Participants also valued the cross-pollination of working with colleagues from other territories on the projects – another real benefit of service design and a truly customer-centric approach.

3. Build empathy throughout your entire organization.

All employees must live the culture. I often say: “Eat your own dog food.” What do I mean by this? Well, if you work for a large telco, you never really have to experience what it’s like to get a phone contract or look at and understand your phone bill, you get a free phone and the bill is automatically paid. How can you understand your customers’ concerns if you don’t do what they do? You must experience what your customers’ experience. But also you must have empathy for each other. Organise cross-silo activities and events.
For example, O2 created a product called the O2 Joggler. It was a tablet style product that displayed a shared calendar and included a joint mobile phone tariff for the whole family. The end-to-end experience was not joined up and features were built that customers didn’t want resulting in people bringing it back to the shops. It was the result of a siloed, waterfall development process leading to an overcomplicated product and backend system.

As a response, the internal design team pitched a ‘service design’ way of working to the O2 leaders. Essentially a way of working that put the customer first and involved prototyping and iterating and co-creating across the company and with customers. They accepted and created a post as Head of Customer Centred Design. In the following three years they built a new – design based – product development process that had solid customer experience governance from the top down and a range of tools and training programs from the bottom up. In the same time period, O2 had become faster in getting new products and services to market, had higher customer satisfaction and had trained over 800 people in Customer Centred Design processes.


As well as the culture change beginning to happen, people now had a framework to actively help them deliver customer-centric products and services.

In summary, you need to build a comprehensive customer experience design framework that allows the whole company to act in a customer-centric way in their day-to-day work. And it takes time. It’s not a quick fix. The process is still going strong at O2 today and is being adapted constantly.

When you’ve passed these three milestones, you will have climbed the steps of the empathy ladder and it will be in your organisation’s DNA. You will build a sound understanding of customer experience—it will permeate from the leaders down and to the experience customers have with you. Positively.

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