The Personality of Business: Empathy is Boss

The word “business” conjures an image of the dry, rote give and take of services and goods. These exchanges fulfill an equation: I need X and I will give you Y for it. If what I offer isn’t what you want, we’re done here. If what you want to pay isn’t what I’ll accept, then keep walking.

Most businesses satisfy this equation in a general sense, as evidenced by the dollars and cents in profit they report each year. This doesn’t take into account the all-important “customer satisfaction” component. I would posture that it also doesn’t indicate success. Because customers aren’t metrics or statistical machines. They’re people.

The best businesses aren’t transactional. If at all possible, they are relational in every sense of the word. This may seem like a reach, considering you only want a snow cone or a taco from some businesses. But the smile that taco man gives you at the end of a hard day when you can’t muster up an ounce of energy to cook your own food? The manner in which he carefully tucks the change into your already full hand, so it doesn’t spill? The simple question, “Did you want another napkin before you go? The sauce is delicious, but a bit runny.”  Those are all bits of camaraderie that say, “I’m here to help, not just take your money. I see you. We’re all in this brutal thing together, eh?”

Customer satisfaction isn’t built on completing a transaction without a kerfuffle. Proficiency and savvy are important, if not critical components. The most significant and valuable customer satisfaction is based in empathy. Empathy isn’t niceness and it’s deeper than friendliness. It is the active, engaged interest one person takes in another’s reality. It’s living life for more than a checklist or a ledger sheet. It is, when demonstrated broadly, a culture of humanity. It is integrity in our responsibility and connection to each other as humans. For those bemoaning this as an overstatement and high-minded fluff, consider the practical benefits of empathetic business.

Empathy allows you to determine what people truly want. Not the baseline or surface level desire, but the drive, need, and even the hang-ups behind it. This gives you the distinct advantage of serving the person as a whole. When people are met instead of “completed”, there is automatic rapport. These connections serve to build bridges towards loyalty. I once knew a woman who could be late on nearly every detail of a project. Her response time was atrocious. To be fair, she wasn’t slacking on the job; she just had far too much on her plate. But her clients loved her unambiguously. Why? She was an expert in building rapport. Because she saw them as people and engaged with them with interest, kindness, and enthusiasm, her clients reciprocated. There was a mutual grace in their interactions that defused potential bombs in client satisfaction. There’s a strong suggestion of an inverse relationship here: The greater the rapport and higher the loyalty, the more things that can go haywire before the bottom drops out. A hiccup in production communicated by someone with the backdrop of empathy is a tremor. The same problem delivered by someone whose obvious aim is to get you off the phone as soon as possible, is a lot higher on the Richter scale.

Customer retention has the potential to skyrocket in an environment of empathy. In fact, relationships of any kind are assigned value based on their length, not just their depth. The longer we’re committed to something, whether it be a person, a cause, a TV show, or a type of cheese, the more valuable it becomes to us. The sentimental value, the accumulated experiences, the associations we have with something, whether tangible, or intangible, are powerful. They keep us bought in to perpetuating the attachment. Sure, there are other vehicles with an obscene number of fancy gadgets and gizmos, but my 15-year-old truck and I have history. We’ve been on adventures. I’ll drive it into the grave, mild annoyances and random clunking noises be damned.

Though businesses grow through advertising and hardline selling, the unanimously agreed prince of sales is “word of mouth”. When you love something, you tell people so. A business with empathy stands out in a nation and world of greed and bottom line approaches. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who won’t wax poetic on the virtues of their bank, editor, grocery store, or public relations firm if they are above the cut.

the mythical unicorn: rare but valuable, much like a good business

When I moved to the Southeastern United States a few years ago, I was mockingly cynical about a local grocery store chain’s motto. They claimed to be a place where “shopping is a pleasure”. “Trite,” I thought. “Where the heck is shopping a pleasure, ever, much less an overpriced grocery store?” But, after a few desperate times when I had no viable alternative, I realized, to my surprise, that shopping there was a great experience. The associates are cheerful, eager to help, and always exceed my expectations. They give kids fruit and cookies and balloons to stave off tantrums. The store is clean and pleasantly arranged. Their produce section is a work of art. I think there is one man whose only job is to make the apples shiny enough to see your face. In fact, I have heard of multiple occasions when a manager helped push a tired mom’s cart around the store so she could hold her screaming baby. If more than two people are in a line, another register opens like magic. The baggers’ profuse offers to help me carry my groceries is almost embarrassing. It’s now a running joke to me. I’d rather stop there and pay more than deal with the cavernous, slop-heap of a super store that’s closer and cheaper. “Ah, yes,” I muse, as I enter the automatic sliding doors. “It is a pleasure to shop here.” You can bet I tell every who is new in town about the magic of Publix.

To the average consumer, the single most important selling point, even beyond price, is the reviews that come along with it. “Oh, Bob recommended this? Well, Bob is great. This must be great, too!” Business of this stock reaches a larger market ready and willing to be impressed; they are tangentially attributed the positive characteristics Bob possesses. The gain isn’t solely a customer, it’s the value of a customer primed for rapport by an enthusiast. It’s a customer already at least partially convinced of excellence. It’s the inheritance of a placebo effect at worst, and ready-made die-hard fan at best.

Empathy reduces waste in time, energy, and money. I can’t count the number of times I’ve downloaded a new software/platform iteration only to find that the features/interfaces that worked have been brutalized and what wasn’t working has been made even less efficient. There’s an obvious disconnect between customer feedback and implementation, from within and outside of so many companies. This isn’t a reflection of their technical incompetence or technological limitations. In fact, the change or update might be impressive and brilliant in and of itself, but practically useless. The irony is that the most obvious efforts to satisfy customer demand end up doing the opposite. If you can’t empathize with a customer and approach the product from their standpoint, you will run in circles trying to please them. That feature, the one that was built over several months and thrust into light with gusto? It may not be an objective failure, as it performs exactly as designed. But the fact the collective customer never wanted it, or they had five other big issues with the product features, suggests a subjective failure, at best. Not only were man hours and talent wasted, but the chance to enhance and add value to the customer experience was missed. Most importantly, the unintentional message of, “Your wants, desires, needs, thoughts, opinions, quality of life, current stress levels, etc. DO NOT MATTER TO US” has been conveyed with dismissive clarity.

Empathy anticipates the needs of another. It prepares beforehand. It isn’t afraid to ask for input. It puts the needs of others ahead of profit and gain. Though it seems counter-intuitive to prioritize relationship over money, the long-term gains can’t be underestimated. We don’t just risk losing money without empathy. We risk losing a part of our souls. Empathy affirms our humanity and makes us better people. Better people do better business. Better business thrives and serves more people well. The ever-expanding cycle of influence continues.

If good business was a person, empathy would be one of its defining characteristics, along with a fabulous sense of humor. I hope.

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