People demonstrating empathy in customer service
5-second summary
  • During the height of Covid, customer-service staffers in the cruise industry were under incredible pressure to reassure and help customers, while also navigating massive changes in their own lives.
  • Royal Caribbean Group turned to Atlassian’s Team Playbook to help create an empathy-centered customer service experience.  
  • Playbook exercises also helped the team build strong bonds with each other during a tumultuous time.

Let’s be blunt: of all the businesses damaged by the coronavirus pandemic, the cruise industry was arguably one of the worst hit.

Together, the three major operators – Royal Caribbean Group, Carnival, and Norwegian – were losing a mind-boggling $900m a month at the tumultuous height of the crisis.

“Some people save for years to go on their cruise of a lifetime, and it was an incredibly big deal for them when Covid shut everything down,” says Anna Bolton, manager of Contact Center Analytics and Solutions at Royal Caribbean Group (RCG) in Miami.

But last summer, RCG’s Celebrity Edge was the first cruise ship to depart the U.S. in 15 months. An incredible amount of work, both above and below the corporate waterline, had gone into that victory, of course – but much of it boils down to one simple factor: empathy.

“We work in the hospitality industry and we realize that there’s a strong emotional connection for many guests when it comes to booking these trips,” says Bolton. “We couldn’t sail, but we could speak to those guests, and help to navigate them through the situation.” 

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Charting a course for empathy

As they charted their own course through the uncertain waters of the coronavirus crisis, Bolton and her team often reached for one lifeline in particular: the Atlassian Team Playbook. A free online resource, the Playbook helps teams build on their strengths, troubleshoot common difficulties and generate positive group dynamics, through a series of simple workshops. 

“We’ve become pretty obsessed with Team Playbook,” laughs Bolton. “The beauty of it is that you can apply the exercises easily to any industry, just by making a few simple tweaks. When we were all thrust into remote working without warning, the Playbook helped us to maintain our team bonds, to ensure the correct loops were closed and to work out how to problem-solve creatively together in our new environment.” 

Designed over three facilitation levels – beginner, medium, and expert – the secret to the Playbook’s success (to the tune of millions of views a year) is that all 46 of the carefully targeted workshops are rooted in science. Over the last 18 months, the RCG folks have applied many of those to good effect. But there are two particular plays that Bolton singles out for special praise.

Empathy Mapping and Customer Journey Mapping have both been incredibly useful over the last 18 months,” she enthuses. “We learnt pretty quickly that we needed to empathize not only with our customers’ journeys, but also with our agents’ journey – and with our colleagues’ journeys, too.” 

Empathy Mapping proved extremely effective – especially as it involved listening to recorded customer calls before running the Play. 

“By listening to the customer calls beforehand, we could identify patterns and trends, and then work on them during the play,” says Bolton. “Empathy Mapping then helped us respond to them in the best way possible.” 

As the play’s official instructions say: 

“Walking a mile in someone else’s shoes is easier said than done (especially if they have small feet – oy!). Nonetheless, that’s exactly what we need to do in order to make sure our work has the effect we’re hoping for. Service providers need to think like service consumers. Makers need to think like users. Writers need to think like readers.”

Bolton and her co-manager Updiks Campbell Jr. set about helping their team do exactly that: walking in as many shoes as possible – and identifying common pain points as they did so.

“Before, there was less structure to our process,” admits Campbell. “We were the first department within our company to move over to agile technology – and we became big proponents of Team Playbook pretty quickly after that. We just started leveraging more and more of the Playbook piece by piece – and seeing more and more real results. 

“We had two things in the front of our minds throughout: being empathetic towards our customers and being empathetic towards our colleagues – because we were asking them to crank out more work than they ever had before, during one of the most stressful times in any of our lives.”

Building empathy strengthened team bonds

One of the side effects of adopting both Team Playbook and this empathy-forward approach was the natural deepening of team bonds, continues Campbell. 

“It sounds strange, but ever since we haven’t been sitting in the office together, we’ve actually come to know each other far better,” he laughs. “We regularly run a play called Retrospective, and during one of those sessions, a colleague confessed that he’d often felt disconnected before – but running remote plays had made him feel a genuine part of the team for the first time. In many ways, we’ve all become closer during this process. There’s a real sense of ‘Hey, we can tackle anything now!’” 

Bolton agrees, listing other plays that have helped with the bond-forging process. 

“Retrospective has certainly been useful. It’s just a great way of staying on the same page; figuring out what worked well and what we can do better next time,” she says. “We’ll do quick retrospectives as frequently as we can because we want to keep learning and keep moving forward together. But there are other great plays for team-building too, including the Icebreaker Activities, which help people laugh, relax, and get into their rhythm. Part of being a manager is seeing when your team needs a break, and when that’s the case, I often reach for something fun from the icebreakers list.”      

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Keeping innovation alive

From its groundbreaking ship design to its recent push into private islands with Perfect Day at Coco Cay in the Bahamas (containing the tallest waterslide in North America, no less!) Atlassian customer RCG has always been renowned for its innovation, and Bolton says that harnessing the right plays has helped her team build on that heritage.  

“The space-creating plays like Get S#!t Done Day have been really important for us, because they’ve given us the opportunity to think outside the box and identify innovative solutions,” she explains. “Applying that kind of structure to creative thinking means remote work isn’t an impediment of any kind, and we’ve been able to keep innovating effectively throughout the crisis.”

Campbell agrees: “Royal Caribbean Group has always been a very innovative company. Innovation is in our DNA – and by adopting these creative plays from an empathetic starting point, we’re able to stay true to that.” 

One major example of that creative/empathetic blend in action was when RCG stepped up to help first responders after the tragic Surfside condo collapse in June 2021. With few housing options near the scene of the disaster in the Miami suburbs, RCG provided one of its cruise ships, Explorer of the Seas, to house and feed up to 600 responders and search dogs, as well as power their equipment as they set about the rescue operation. 

“Just because our cruise ships were empty didn’t mean they couldn’t be useful,” says Campbell. “We’re all humans, and we have to remember that it’s not just about hitting targets and producing numbers, it’s also about taking care of each other.”  

Sailing into new horizons 

“We’re facing an entirely new challenge now as we move towards a new post-Covid era of travel, but we have to take the lessons that we’ve learnt with us, particularly in terms of the human connections,” says Bolton. “That and the Playbook, of course. As things slowly start getting back to normal, we’re going to need to innovate, empathize, and pull together as a team more than ever, and the structure that Playbook provides will be incredibly useful on that journey.” 

It might not have been plain sailing for the last two years, but if Bolton and Campbell’s experience over the course of the pandemic has proved anything, it’s that having the right crew and caring about your passengers will always get you to your destination in the end. That and a few carefully chosen plays, of course.        

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