Growing up in the 1960s in the Deep South, a radio for Christmas was a prized gift. The radio represented a gateway to a world I had not yet traveled, and the music of the era painted a picture of a troubled time. Elvis Presley is generally recognized as The King of music, and he made a tremendous impression on me with his songs. In one of the songs that got to me, the most the lyrics went something like this:
Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes
Yeah, before you abuse, criticize, and accuse
Walk a mile in my shoes
In the troubled times of the 1960s, Elvis was pointing out the need for everyone to be able to empathize with others by “walking a mile” in their shoes. The message of empathy is still needed during these times.
Empathy is, in its true definition, “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” It is a powerful skill, but one that isn’t always easy to deliver. As parents, leaders, co-workers, and more, now more than ever, empathy will help bridge the gaps of uncertainty and help us all get to the “other side” of these turbulent times.
Developing an Empathic Culture
Before we work toward a culture of empathy in customer service, we first must understand the shift of the customer toward the examination of the company’s footprint in society. In today’s world, more and more consumers are focused on the social conscience of the products they buy. As an example, my daughter gave me a 30-minute explanation on the cosmetics she wears, her research on how the product is made and the company that makes the product. Is animal testing used? Are the ingredients responsibly sourced? Is that company giving back to the community? These are some of the questions she researches before making her decision to buy that product.
Interestingly enough, as she was looking for new cosmetics, she had narrowed her search down to two cosmetic lines. She ventured into the store of one line and was appalled at her treatment as a customer. She told me that while it was an environmentally and socially aware company, its associates cared nothing about their customers. She tried to explain her questions about the product and her problems with the fair skin of a redhead, but the associate looked through her to simply say she really had no idea how the product would affect my daughter. My daughter told me, “The associate couldn’t have cared less about the questions I had!”
The company spent all that money for outreach to the community and being responsible for its product, but made no effort to develop a customer service culture that really cares about the customer.
The first step to create an empathetic culture is to fully understand your team members and to acknowledge that everyone responds differently to different situations. Therefore, as leaders, we have to manage to acknowledge the individual emotions of our team members. Everyone comes from a different place with different life experiences. We as leaders need to be able to walk a mile our associates’ shoes.
The second step is to be able to set the example for the team. Are we as leaders doing one of the things Stephen Covey tells us, which is to “seek first to understand then to be understood”? Are we taking the time to understand our associates and the situation before we speak and act? In the course of the day, we make thousands of decisions—some simple, others more complex. Sometimes what appears to be the simplest of decisions can have a tremendous impact on our associates as they watch us process information. Have we taken the time to weigh the impact of our decision on the organization, the customer, and our associates? Are we able to apply empathy and strike a balance? Our associates are watching for this.
The third step is maybe the hardest. Are we able to communicate effectively and share our decisions using empathy? As parents, it is easy to say we know what is best for our kids without having to communicate those ideas to our kids. But in strong organizations, to develop empathy we first must be able to explain our decisions in a fashion that balances all needs involved. We must develop the associate’s decision-making process to include empathy for our client and our organization. If we don’t explain the process in an empathic manner so the associate fully understands the reason behind our decision, then how can we expect our associate to convey empathy to our client?
To summarize the steps of an empathic culture: First, understand that everyone comes from a different place. Second, as a leader seek first to understand our associates and our clients. And finally, be able to communicate your thought process in an empathic manner so the associate and the client can understand the importance of empathy in your process.
Walking a mile in someone’s shoes is not easy. Some may be bigger than others and some may be smaller, but empathy is a critical element in today’s world. It’s the one thing that can set us apart from our competition and help us stay strong as an organization.
As a regional Training account manager, Joe Lipham is responsible for the delivery of customer service and sales training for Signature clients. Lipham has more than 25 years in Human Resources and training experience within the hospitality industry. Prior to joining Signature in 2003, he worked for the Marriott Corporation’s Crestline Davidson Hotels, where he served as banquet manager, project manager, and director of Human Resources. Lipham was recognized by former Georgia Governor Zell Miller for his instrumental role in implementing a General Educational Development program for the Chateau Élan, helping 13 associates earn their diplomas.