Q&A: Why Empathy is Critical for Data Scientists
Dr. Colin Coleman, SVP of Data and Analytics at Equifax, focuses on strategy for data and analytics as a center of excellence and around model risk management. He was recently interviewed by Beverly Wright for her podcast, TAG Data Talk, which covers the current state and future outlook of analytics and data science.
We asked Dr. Coleman a few questions about how to make the “last mile” of the analytics lifecycle a success. For more information on this topic, listen to the full podcast, The Last Mile of Analytics: Successful Consumption of Results.
What do you mean by the “last mile” of the analytics lifecycle?
Dr. Coleman: The “last mile” describes working closely with the customer and effectively conveying and implementing the solution you have worked on with him or her. As an example, for a telecommunications company providing Internet or cable services, they may consider the last mile as getting the fiber optic cable from the pole outside directly into the customer’s home – it’s that last task, and that is sometimes the hardest.
We can do great work, but at the end of the day it’s about getting close to the customer and relating to them and their business problem.
Analytics is very technical by nature, but you stress the qualitative side of problem solving. In fact, you say empathy is key to a successful solution. Tell us about that.
Dr. Coleman: Empathy is different than just understanding. Empathy has feeling to it, e.g. walking a mile in the customer’s shoes. It means really understanding someone’s pain points, how they say it, how they react to it, what their value system is.
Empathy is more about not putting yourself or your company first – and not navel gazing. It’s about putting your customer first, always. You have to meet your customer where they are in their journey – it doesn’t have to be fancy and full of technical details (unless that is what they want), it just has to be what the customer needs.
How do data scientists at Equifax demonstrate empathy with customers? And can data scientists learn empathy?
Dr. Coleman: Empathy is part of the job here at Equifax. While it’s not rocket science, it does come more naturally to some people. You might think of it like a doctor who has a good bedside manner.
While there is a bit of a mindset to it, data scientists can learn empathy. Demonstrating empathy is the basis of any relationship – you have to be interested in [the customer], must ask questions, and you must listen. Sometimes you have to leave your biases at home, which can be hard to do. Ultimately, you need to build a customer-client relationship that isn’t just transactional in nature.
How can other organizations excel at empathy and other qualitative attributes?
Dr. Coleman: Those values should be embedded in the culture. You can do that through training and instilling a customer-first philosophy in all processes — from those on the front line, to operations and technology.
Sometimes you need a wake-up call to realize it’s not all about you, or your company. It’s really about the customer; everyone on the team needs to have an appreciation of what’s driving the customer needs. Plus, team members should be aware of other teammates’ needs and what is driving them. Everyone should be aligned.
It’s not always the sexiest thing that translates into being customer-focused. For example, instead of presenting that latest product from R&D, you may want to deliver that mundane solution to your customer’s problem, such as a tool that automates documentation for model risk management – which is a hugely valuable thing that would otherwise take a customer hundreds of hours. It’s not very exciting, but it shows you’ve listened and are really invested in solving your customer’s needs.
Most importantly, it goes back to that bedside manner that certain doctors have. As a discipline we have been so focused on the technical aspects of data and analytics, and to some degree storytelling. But we also need to be focused on the softer skills. That includes listening, communicating, being honest and humble, and meeting our customers where they are. Being fully balanced is what makes us really effective and impactful to our customers and our business.
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