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Nothing dramatizes a point like storied contrasts. So, refill your coffee cup, sit back, and allow the parade of opposing anecdotes dramatize a key concept too often absent from customers’ experiences.
Last Fall, my mother passed away at age 102. She lived a happy, healthy life and the sentiment communicated at her funeral illustrated her considerable impact on her small rural community. Relatives and friends, some present and some not, sent flowers for her funeral service. But the local florist intensified their sadness through failure to champion their important gestures of remembrance. Some arrangements were made wrong, and some were delivered late. Several were delivered to the graveside service after completely missing the church funeral. When confronted with feedback, the florist failed to show remorse for errors. I am told the local funeral home now refuses to recommend them.
Our cat had a bout with a stomach bug, and we took her to the veterinary clinic for diagnosis and treatment. As we arrived, the receptionist (coincidentally named Sunny) was helping an elderly woman and her daughter to the front door. The scene needed no explanation. The woman had just had her cat put to sleep and was leaving with the cat’s empty caring case. The receptionist was trying to comfort her and give her strength. But, here is the punch line of this story. Tears were pouring done the face of the receptionist. As the woman drove away, Sunny quickly regained her composure to assist us with the check-in for our cat.
The Power of Empathy
Empathy is identification, an expression of kinship that nurtures connection and bolsters confidence. It is not fake sympathy that communicates commiseration–a sentiment for pity parties of fellow victims. It says, “I can identify with your circumstance, I care about you, and I am eager to be your source of emotional strength.” And, it telegraphs to customers you genuinely care. Indifferent service is hated by customers more than plain old bad service. Bad service could be the result of a system hiccup; indifference categorically communicates you do not care.
What can leaders do to foster more front-line associates like Sunny? Select people who can quickly and sincerely demonstrate empathy. The manner an applicant treats a receptionist can provide a telling preview. Train and resource associates so they can serve from a position of confident competence. Ensure they are a part of a supportive team. But, then what? What is the day to day actions of leaders?
Tex Bix Bender, the author of Don’t Squat with Yer Spurs On: A Cowboy’s Guide to Life, wrote in that book, “A body can pretend to care, but they can’t pretend to be there.” Presence does not mean periodic visit to the factory floor or stroll through the contact center. As the late Herb Kelleher, founder, and CEO of Southwest Airlines, once told me, “Folks don’t want leaders just looking at their shoes; they want leaders to wear them.” He should know. Residents of Dallas could often spot him loading baggage on busy travel days on the tarmac of Love Field near their headquarters. Presence is also a tool of leaders eager to learn. Leaders who promote employee empathy don’t “manage by walking around” just to make employees feel better; they are present to learn.”
Listen Like a Granddaddy
I sometimes show keynote audiences a photograph of my youngest granddaughter at five years old and ask: If you could have a ten-minute conversation with Cassie and we could watch you, what would we see?” Participants easily answered the question with a recipe for listening like an inquisitive grandfather. “I would be highly animated; I would hang on her every word; I would be on her level; I would learn what was important to her; I would talk in a way she could converse as an equal.” The punch line? When you are talking with an innocent child, the very best of who you are always shows up. When employees experience “Cassie Listening” from leaders, they don’t just feel heard and understood; they feel valued. It builds self-esteem that spills over to customers as empathy.
Be a Champion
When I worked with a large hotel, I experienced a fantastic bellman. He greeted me as my late-night taxi arrived, introduced himself with a handshake, put ice in my ice bucket, opened my guest room drapes and identified major sights I would later see from my high floor. Then, he gave me his business card and said: “My cell phone is on the back. Call me anytime if you need anything.” The next morning, I met with the hotel General Manager. I relayed my enthusiasm for one of his terrific bellmen. “What really impressed me?” I told him, “Mel gave me his business card and told me I could call him 24 hours a day.” The GM got an odd look on his face, “But, our bellmen don’t have business cards!” Two weeks later I received a call from the GM. “I just have to tell you about Mel,” he said proudly. “He is now in charge of our bell stand…and, they all have business cards!” Advocacy fuels confidence and the initiative to engage and connect.
Grace is a word with many meanings. One meaning is what famed psychotherapist Carl Rogers called, “unconditional positive regard.” It does not mean leading with a tolerance for mediocracy. Grace is a tool for driving fear out of the workplace–one of quality guru Edward Deming’s tenants for delivering high quality. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” said Ritz-Carlton Hotels founder Horst Schulze at a leadership summit. He continued, “What’s the person you’re dealing with in business? Your neighbor.” Leaders who view employee error as a chance for coaching rather than as a circumstance for chastisement arm employees with the emotional strength to convert customer disdain into customer delight. The first step to healing any broken customer relationship is frontline humility and empathy that is delivered with compassion and confidence.
Poet Maya Angelou wrote, “I think we all have empathy. We may not have enough courage to display it.” Empathy is adored by customers. It telegraphs the other half of a corporate kinship communicating a desire for a healthy partnership. As the opposite of front-line indifference, it lets customers know there is more than a warm body driving the service exchange, there is a person eager to act as a caring neighbor. For leaders, it is the byproduct of courage sincerely demonstrated by the ambassador at the front door of the organization.
February 3, 2019 at 04:59PM
Forbes – Entrepreneurs