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The Lost Art of Empathy

Have you heard the story of how United Airlines lost a ten-year-old and didn’t care? Phoebe Klebahn was flying United, as an unaccompanied minor, from San Francisco to Grand Rapids to get to her summer camp. On a layover in Chicago, United failed to help Phoebe make her connecting flight, failed to respond to her pleas for help, failed to contact or help her contact her parents or the camp, and failed, at a basic level, to make sure that the ten-year-old child was okay.

Eventually, Phoebe made it to Grand Rapids on a later flight, but with every interaction with United, from attempts to file complaints and recover lost luggage to United’s official statement responding to the saga, the Klebahns were met with more jaw-dropping examples of an utter lack of empathy.

The one notable breakthrough in the United story was when Phoebe’s parents, who had found out from the camp that she hadn’t turned up, asked a United representative over the phone to go see if their daughter was okay. The representative refused, saying she was getting off her shift. She changed her mind after Mr. Klebahn asked if she was a mother herself and what she would do if she were missing her child.

Seth Godin effectively captures the experience of customers meeting a lack of empathy in this sentence: “The simplest customer service frustration question of all ‘Why isn’t this as important to you as it is to me?’” Mr. Klebahn finally conveyed to the United rep that sense of a lost child being as important to her as it was to him.

For all the debate over whether “corporations are people”, what’s striking about companies who have human beings as customers is that it requires its individual, hopefully human being, employees to empathize in order to deliver effective customer service. When there’s an organizational culture of apathy, a lack of ability — or worse, a refusal — to feel empathy for customers, to understand their emotions regarding a product or service, a company cannot be successful.

Empathy is the ability to share and experience people’s feelings. It’s one of the “high concept, high touch” capabilities that Dan Pink talks about as one of the increasingly valued and required skills in the modern workplace of the “conceptual age.” Our computerized, digitized world is great but can’t process human emotions. In contrast, our brains are wired to pick up on the emotions of other people.

Then, what’s the connection between our ability to pick up on emotions of others with motivation to help customers?

At my company, we focus a lot on the power of intrinsic motivation, the motivation that comes from within. Intrinsic motivation is far more effective in improving work performance and productivity over the long run than the business textbook practices of extrinsic motivation, which exist outside yourself in the form of external reward, punishment, and pressure.

When we pick up emotional distress signals from others, we’re more inclined to help.
Intuitively, empathy seems to fall into the camp of intrinsic motivation, but as with relationships, the introduction of other people into the equation complicates things. Is the feeling of empathy triggered by external motives such as conforming to social norms, or external reward like the hero headline, the pat on the back, or even the external goal of helping other people? Or does empathy lands more toward intrinsic motivation, which better sustains performance and productivity?

Louisa Pavey, Tobias Greitemeyer, and Paul Sparks discovered that we retain our inner drive when we step into other people’s shoes. The team found that empathy increases intrinsic motivation, which in turn increases willingness to help others. The result supports research that has shown connections between intrinsic motivation and helping behavior.

In fact, Pavey & co. found that the promotion of empathy can boost intrinsic motivation to help. Study participants read a story about a woman suffering depression. One group was told to focus on the woman’s emotions and imagine how she felt, while another group was instructed to remain as objective and detached as possible. The group that experienced a higher arousal of empathy from the encouragement to focus on the emotions of another person was more willing to offer help afterwards.

Let’s go back to the United Airline story. Whatever extrinsic motivation was in place for the United Airlines employee that finally made a move to find Phoebe, whether the stick of being reprimanded for losing a ten-year-old or the carrots of raises and promotions for a job well done, was not sufficient to provoke her to act. She also, for whatever reason, did not have an immediately empathetic reaction, pointing out to the Klebhans that she was getting off her shift. What motivated her was internal, born of a moment of newly elicited empathy, of getting her to imagine herself in the place of the Klebahns.

How can we harness this information to motivate employees to be more empathetic and more effective in serving customers?

Look for empathy when hiring.  It helps to have empathic people on your team, who will more naturally feel how something is “as important to you as it is to me.” For example, Southwest is a company, known for great customer service, who look for empathy in applicants. Frances Frei and Anne Morriss in their new book, Uncommon Service, describe how Southwest recruiters have applicants tell an embarrassing story and watch the reactions of other applicants.

Elicit empathy. Take a note from Pavey and co’s study and make a practice of listening and reading stories and imagining characters’ emotions before interacting with real-life customers.

Trade places. Have employees put on the shoes of the customer to experience aspects of the product/service or interactions with the company. We wanted a better connection to the experience that our team users were having to improve the sign-up flow. Ginni, our awesome Chief (customer) Happiness Officer went through the process of creating a team from the perspective of a team manager and of an invitee to a team. Her customer experience led to insightful suggestions we used to improve our site.

Keep a work diary. We’ve written about how keeping a work diary increases intrinsic motivation by improving self-analysis, perception, and overall engagement with your work. We also think that keeping a work diary will improve and maintain your ability to empathize with customers.  Self-awareness is an integral part of empathy, helping to develop an awareness differentiating yourself from others. By reflecting on your experiences with customers, you can cultivate empathy while growing your self-awareness and gaining insight on yourself, on your customers, and your work.

Empathy is an essential component of caring about your customers, your employees, and your company, and its absence signals larger problems in organizational culture. Empathy can’t be plastered on like a fake smile, but it can be cultivated from within. We’d love to hear about the role of empathy and how you maintain it in your dealings with your customers!

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