With empathy, finding the way to the heart and soul of your company
Track with me for a minute: Empathy. What comes to mind? Caring, feelings, understanding, soft, even sweet emotions? Sure, these are common, largely correct associations.
More precisely, empathy is the capacity to put yourself into someone else’s position; to understand or feel what they’re experiencing. An early 20C English coinage, it derives from the Greek ἐμπάθεια (em+ pathos): feeling, experiencing, even suffering in/at. In other words, empathy is the capacity to “walk a mile in their shoes”; “experience what they’re going through,” “feel their pain,” “reduce differences between yourself and another”. To be distinguished from compassion, the motivation to help others in need; and from sympathy, caring and understanding for someone in need.
Besides individuals, we readily associate empathy with social, educational, charitable and religious organisations, some governments and UN/NGOs; but empathy is rarely thought of in the context of business, or marketing, and I venture to say, even less in B2B marketing. B2B generally is a highly rational, logical domain, filled with rational, STEM disciplines— tech, chemistry, engineering. More and more, the practice of every B2B business, not least its marketing, requires even more tech and stacks and data that produce more hard evidence and numbers, etc; this is not the stuff of emotion.
Empathy and B2B? Hmmm…
In the tangible, “kick the tires,” “hold it, feel it, build it” world of B2B , intangibles and emotions, like empathy, doubtless seem like fluff. (Think of the travails of B2B branding!) Consider, however, that empathy is a two-way street; to be successful, empathy requires the total integrity, authenticity and good-will of individuals and the total quality of their offerings, without which everything crumbles. With empathy so rooted in integrity, authenticity and good-will, however, will not trust, loyalty, and respect --among all players, buyers and sellers, givers and takers -- rebound and redound?
- Well then, how ideal is empathy as a model for generating customer-centricity and intimacy? (“Walk a mile in their shoes!”) How ideal is this emotion, this intangible value, for loyalising employees and teams; for energising cultures and brands? What’s not to like!
- It is in these contexts that I love to quote my TorchFish co-founder and partner, James Risch, 35 years in international finance with JPMorgan: « the soft stuff is the most important, and it’s really hard.
Enter The Empathy Edge: Harnessing the Value of Compassion as an Engine for Success (2019, Page Two) by Maria Ross
Ms. Ross’s recent, well-received book is a highly readable, enjoyable analysis of the values of empathy to business, individuals, cultures and brands. Her view: empathy gives an edge.
Upfront, Ms. Ross enjoins you to put aside any views you might have that empathy negates your ability to make rational, reasoned decisions, or that it makes you less competitive or more likely to cave. Rather, empathy is best understood as a mindset that guides interactions and policies that post clear advantages in business. She goes on to show how empathy spurs innovation (through customer understanding), aligns you with customer wants and needs (know what they want before they do), improves employee performance (fosters collaboration AND technical competence) and especially appeals to millenials and GenZ (loyal to companies, brands that care and make a difference). No surprise, empathy becomes a key driver of a company’s sales, growth and market performance.
Empathy is a vital need-to-have:
For Ms. Ross, empathy, which she defines as “being willing and able to see, understand, and feel another person’s perspective and further to use this information to act compassionately,” is not just beneficial. It’s vital. Others agree.
- Satya Nadela, CEO Microsoft, sees empathy as a “well-spring for innovation, since innovation comes from one’s ability to grasp customers’ unmet, unarticulated needs.”
- For Simon Sinek, author and leadership expert, empathy is the “ability to recognise and share other people’s feelings” and so is the “most important instrument in a leader’s toolbox.”
- For former-president Barack Obama, empathy is critical to the advancement of culture: “See the world through the eyes of those who are different from us”, he urged in a recent commencement speech; “empathise with the plight of others, because it becomes harder not to act, harder not to help.”
Empathy benefits three primary business domains:
The text is largely dedicated to three domains in business where the benefits of empathy manifest themselves: for leaders, for company cultures and for brands. E.g.,
- For leaders, benefits of empathy include engendering loyalty (you put customers, teams at ease) and fostering good decisions (you see multiple perspectives).
- An empathetic culture offers higher retention, less turnover (good, talented people want to stay longer and work harder vs. low morale, reduced retention, potential business loss) and better customer service (happy employees, happy customers).
- The benefits of empathetic brands include healthy market performance and longeviity (customer loyalty cultivated for the long haul) and forgiveness when you fail (banked brand goodwill affords you a second chance.)
Empathy examples and case studies:
For each domain, Ms. Ross provides clear examples from case studies and research reports to document her findings. Some that stood out for me:
- A finance company, Brighton Jones, built their highly successful business on the insight that people just want to trust that their advisors are in it for “my best interests,” not for “lining their own pockets;” Brighton Jones extends this to hiring people who “want to become better people” as a result of their jobs.
- None other than Steve Jobs refused to set himself above his customers, choosing instead to get in the trenches by screening individual user feedback himself: “Get closer than ever to your customers,” said Jobs. “So close that you tell them what they need well before they realise it themselves.”
- A collection agency employs empathy and understanding (“being nice”) to get people to pay off their debts vs. using expected industry practices (“yelling”), and posts 3X higher returns than industry norms. Empathy as a radical, industry-defying, rule-breaking, even subversive business practice!
Interested? Want to get started?
An important, and quite fun aspect of the book: Ms. Ross’s suggestions for getting started on the road to empathy.
- Practice presence: don’t multi-task, 5 minutes of silence daily
- Explore with your imagination: feed your brain with movies, art, etc.
- Get in the trenches: try a colleague’s job!
- Start small: no big transformative projects, tiny cumulative actions
- Create an environment of trust: cultivate strong mentorship and training programs
- Facilitate intergenerational understanding: younger generations expect their contributions to be valued and believe diversity of thought leads to better business outcomes.
- Speak your customer’s language: what words resonate with your customers and make them feel valued?
- Accept feedback as a gift: use even the negative stuff as a catalyst for change
- Ask and echo back: hear out your customers’ struggles and fears and play them back for deeper brand loyalty, higher sales conversions, more referrals.
Empathy and B2B should be strange bedfellows no longer!
It is impossible to disagree with the logic, argumentation and emotional intelligence that drives this little tome. Empathy means business! Empathy offers serious edge to any business, not least to B2B companies, where arguably it is in short supply and could be seen as highly differentiating and relevant, even disruptive and subversive! Give it a try: start small.
Then marketer, consider empathy –this wonderful, intangible, powerful, magical force-- as a new arrow in your quiver. Embrace it. Use it to among other things, to own the heart and soul of your organisation -- the position is likely wide-open.
NB: Ms. Ross continues her research from the book with The Empathy Edge podcast, speaking to C-level execs, experts, and thought leaders about how empathy is a competitive leadership and brand advantage. Learn more at www.TheEmpathyEdge.com (or you can link to it in the podcast title.)
We have long conducted an exercise in our workshops called Think-Feel-Act: Today & Tomorrow.
- Put yourselves in your audiences’ shoes—customers, employees, partners, shareholders, investors.
- Ask yourself: What do they think about us today? How do they feel and act today?
- Then project—"walk a mile in their shoes”. What do you want them to think about us tomorrow? What do you want them to feel? How do you want them to act?
- And, importantly, what do you have to do, as a team, as a business, to help them make these shifts? It is a start. It is a full-on exercise in empathy and identifying with the other. Try this one too!