As consumers, we’ve all experienced episodes when the service that we have received was substandard – and worse yet, when the retailer or service provider did not quite connect the dots as to exactly why we were dissatisfied, nor how to appropriately “make good” on our lousy customer experience.
It reminds me of the time I purchased a breakfast item from one of the world’s largest fast food chains. Sitting down in the restaurant with a Diet Coke and a newspaper, I began to remove the mass-produced muffin from its plastic packaging when I noticed a pea-sized patch of mold. Thankful that I hadn’t taken a bite, I returned to the counter to share my discovery with the young man who rang up my purchase.
To his credit, he promptly recognized the need to restore my faith in the restaurant’s food and its commitment to customer satisfaction. Interestingly, his solution was to offer me two more muffins – identical muffins in the same see-through packaging. These showed no visible signs of mold. Great.
I politely declined the offer and asked for a refund. I had lost my appetite for a muffin… or anything else for that matter. I was also disappointed that the fast food worker hadn’t been trained to handle my situation in a way that made me want to return to the restaurant. Clearly, he didn’t understand my perspective, a cynical view that each muffin included blueberries, plus a running start on something green and fuzzy-looking.
Empathy. In today’s business environment where customer experience defines branding, and dictates marketing strategy, empathy for the consumer is paramount. Service personnel must understand what customers want and care enough to make sure they receive it – in a manner that makes them feel understood, respected and valued.
Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another person. Empathy means being caring, nurturing and having a servant’s heart. And it is genuine. Empathy is also not something that can be instilled in employees. They either have it, or they don’t.
Few companies display empathy better than Southwest Airlines. In the classic book Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success, authors Kevin and Jackie Freiburg shed light on a terrific group interview practice used by Southwest to identify unselfish, caring employees: “The interviewing team asks a group of potential employees to prepare a five-minute presentation about themselves and gives them plenty of time to prepare. As the presentations are delivered, the interviewers don’t watch just the speakers; they watch the audience to see which applicants are using this time to work on their own presentations and which are enthusiastically cheering on and supporting their potential coworkers. Unselfish people who will support their teammates are the ones who catch Southwest’s eye, not the applicants who are tempted to polish their own presentations while the others are speaking.”
Not only is empathy valued on the front lines where company representatives are engaged face-to-face with potential customers, but it has also become increasingly important for effective leadership. In a recent New York Times article, Stewart Butterfield, the co-founder of the photo sharing website Flickr and the team messaging application Slack, stated that empathy is a sought-after trait in new hires. “If you have no ability to empathize, then it’s difficult to give people feedback, and it’s difficult to help people improve. Everything becomes harder.”
How true. So as a leader, you have the opportunity and responsibility to strengthen your empathy skills. Start by considering your co-workers and your relationships with them, and identify situations that might benefit from your commitment to “walk a mile in their shoes.” Then make the concerted effort to reach out and share your sincere willingness to listen and better understand their perspectives. And don’t just limit your empathy exercises to professional relationships; work on the most important relationships in your life.
As the leadership guru Stephen Covey stated, “When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems.”
That Covey quote reminds me of the episode of the television show Three and a Half Men where Charlie Harper (played by actor Charlie Sheen) uses “I understand” as a cure-all tactic for managing uncomfortable conversations. His character is incapable of displaying empathy or unwilling to invest the time to achieve it. It’s good for a laugh, but is not meant for instructional purposes.