Shane Parrish of Farnam Street presents a podcast called The Knowledge Project. In a episode, Parrish interviews author and speaker Seth Godin. During the conversation Godin offers the phrase “It’s just business” as an example of one that coarsens commerce. Perhaps, the one offering the phrase believes it and is using it in support of a belief that their actions in business are objective and independent of thoughts related to others. However, in any interaction involving two or more people, it’s always personal. “It’s just business” can be used as a cudgel by those with little empathy to act ruthlessly. Nothing personal, it’s just business becomes the refrain of those who inflict pain on others by taking advantage of others or firing someone in an unkind way. The phrase arms those with little empathy and helps them rationalize their efforts. However, to the recipient of these types of actions, it feels anything but business and all personal. It hurts to be treated that way and the phrase does nothing to reduce the pain felt. The recipients don’t believe that “it’s just business” is a philosophy to pursue. Some things are more important than just business. Relationships and how we interact with each other matter. Basic civility matters. “It’s just business” ignores this reality.
In the same conversation, Parrish asks Godin what is something Godin wishes he had learned sooner in life. Godin offers as the number one lesson he wish he would have learned is that people don’t want what you want. They don’t care about what you care about. Your employees don’t care about what you care about. Your customers don’t care about what you care about. If you want to get through to others, you have to extend yourself and go to where they are. Godin offered as an example a mistake many entrepreneurs and founders make. Stock options can be a part of the compensation package and are treated as gold by founders offering these to key players on their teams. Ownership is the key compensation factor for owners. It is the thing they care most deeply about. They assume that others on their team will care about them the same way they do and work long hours in pursuit of these. While the truth is that others simply don’t care about these in the same way that owners do. We walk in our own shoes. Others walk in their shoes. Our shoes are different. We don’t understand these differences by wearing just our own.
Related to Godin’s experiences, there’s a life lesson learned by Jeff Bezos as a child that I’ve read recounts of it written by author Ryan Holiday in several articles. Young Bezos had been peppered with public service radio ads about the dangers of smoking. Through these ads he learned that each cigarette consumed reduces a person’s life expectancy by a certain number of minutes. Both of Bezos’s grandparents were smokers. While riding in the backseat of their car one day watching his grandmother smoke, Bezos told his grandmother that she had just lost a certain amount of her life. Some may pat the young kid kindly on the head telling him how smart he was to heed public health advice. However, Bezos’s grandmother’s response was emotional. She broke down and cried. She was personally wounded by the callous contribution to the conversation of her young grandson. After that ride, Bezos’s grandfather took the young boy aside and told him something which Bezos considers a lifelong lesson. The grandfather said, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” It’s another way of saying do you want to be right or have a relationship. Empathy is about understanding the perspective of another, not brandishing your own brilliance. We’re less likely to move people with math. We don’t follow facts. We are moved by emotion. We are intrigued by those that care.
Our ability to understand others can be a great asset in life. Learning what makes others tick can help build trust, making relationships develop quicker. It also can help us be heard where we’re able to modify our message to meet the ears of our listener. Geoff Colvin wrote in Humans Are Underrated, “The new high-value skills are instead part of our deepest nature, the abilities that literally define us as humans: sensing the thoughts and feelings of others, working productively in groups, building relationships, solving problems together, expressing ourselves with greater power than logic can ever achieve.” These are skills that are needed in our workplaces today and are capable of being performed properly only by people. It’s not our ability to calculate and do mental math that matters, it’s more about our ability to see other perspectives and seek to connect with others. Value today is reflected in becoming more human as this is the scarce skill.
Those good at negotiation and diplomacy understand the importance of seeing the other side’s point of view. A Spanish Jesuit priest, Baltasar Graciian, wrote in the 1800s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. One piece of wisdom offered was “When you advise a prince, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, rather than the light he as unable to see.” Being diplomatic implies being delicate. It’s not about flogging someone with facts. Instead, we can put ourselves in their shoes and patiently nudge them to where they want to go. As Bernadette Jiwa puts it in her book Difference, “It isn’t the person with the best idea who wins; it’s the person who has the greatest understanding of what really matters to people.” When trying to win over others, the war is fought as a battle prioritizing hearts over minds. Focusing on what is important to others is the key to empathy. Our ability to empathize follows our ability to get outside of our own head. It is not about how smart we are, how great our product is, or what wonderful features or benefits we have to offer, it is all about what is important for those we’re seeking to serve right now, where they find themselves today. We need to invest our energy determining this in order to be heard. For what is their heart calling?
Some leaders, too, recognize that the way to engage others and draw their commitment is to express an interest in them. Leaders that are respected and followed tend to be invested in their followers. They have taken the time to learn about what matters to their team and express an interest in it. As the folk at Admired Leadership captured in a note from October 2021, leaders cultivate trust and loyalty by living the idea that “if it matters to you, it matters to me.” We exhibit empathy by expressing interest and concern for those things that someone important to us cares about. When you see that what you care about matters to others, then you see that you matter to the other. We come to believe that if you’re interested in what I’m interested in, then you must also be interested in me. This is one of the deepest ways to form bonds with others. This is the heart of what connection is about.
The standard approach to selling is to flood prospects with the facts about our offering. A hospital may lead with ratios reflecting low patient numbers to caregivers. Or, they may emphasize reduced waits or positive health outcomes their institution offers. These facts, they believe, suggest that the care being delivered is desirable. This may all be true. However, what resonates and hits our emotional core isn’t this type of information. It’s stories like that reflected in this four minute video from the Cleveland Clinic. This video is intended to teach staff at this organization the importance of empathy. It begins with a great quote from Henry David Thoreau: “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?” It only gets better from there. The viewer is walked through the hospital and sees the stories behind the individuals we’re walking by each minute of every day. We can’t help but be hit by the reality that everyone we come across is working through some kind of struggle, good or bad. They are experiencing life just as we are and we should have some respect and appreciation for each on their own journey as a result.
Developing empathy is about escaping the confines of our own world and pursuing the perspective of others. It’s as Dale Carnegie noted in How to Win Friends and Influence People, that “The only way on earth to influence other people is to talk about what they want and show them how to get it.” This skill was so important to Carnegie that he considered it as the secret of success. Those that are able to absorb another person’s point of view and see it as well as they see their own will be able to develop a connection with that person in ways that others simply won’t be able. In business, empathy is appreciating that our success depends on helping others get what they want. Our customers and prospective customers want what they want. They are seeking to be served. When they interact with our business they are evaluating it through the lens of the question: For who are you?
Johnsonville, the juggernaut of sausages in the US, has worked to keep a focus on the needs of customers as a core element in developing business strategy. Dan Pontefract in The Purpose Effect writes of a framework used at Johnsonville known as HICS. HICS stands for Highest Impact on Customer Success. It is incorporated daily within the organization across all departments as a guiding principle to keep the customer front of mind in decision making. MJ DeMarco captures the mentality of Johnsonville’s customer focus writing in The Millionaire Fastlane, “Your customer service should serve one function, similar to our men of the cloth, and that is to ‘always be there’: help, support, and resolve.” Companies like Johnsonville are embracing the approach offered by Jay Baer captured in the title of his book, Youtility: Why Smart Marketing is About Help, Not Hype. It’s about trying to add value, contribute, serve. That’s the surest way to success. As Josh Kaufman points out in The Personal MBA, “Being generous is one of the best things you can do to improve your results as a salesperson. By giving away value and helping others as much as you can, they’ll respect you; it will build your Reputation, but it will also increase the probability that they will be interested enough when you do present your Call-To-Action.”
Bezos sought to embed the value of empathy for the customer into Amazon by ensuring at all important meetings that an empty chair was reserved at the board table to represent their customers. He wanted all attending the meeting to be consciously aware of the customer in any conversation. Others may go further and develop avatars which represent an ideal customer. The avatar represents the characteristics of a specific type of person the business is seeking to serve. Attendees are encouraged to brainstorm about what it is that this type of person may be interested in. These are both efforts at trying to put ourselves in another’s shoes and see the world from another’s perspective. Yet other businesses will invite customers to become part of the conversation. This is for what customer focus groups aim. A separate effort can be to visit customers and watch them interact with your product or service. Learning how others use something helps us understand the problem they’re seeking to solve and the struggles they may encounter while using it. All of these are options that are within our reach and encourage an outward focus aiming to develop empathy with customers. These efforts can be explored while considering some of the following questions. How easy is it for a customer to do business with you? If they change their mind, how easy is it for them to leave you? Does your organization present a detailed terms and conditions to customers? Is part of your strategic conversation the question “how can we reduce the barriers between our organization and our customers? Can we decrease the bureaucracy our customers have to endure? Is our sales and customer service built around customer satisfaction or covering our own a$$? Each of these are areas offering evidence prospects and customers use to answer their for who are you question.
Ultimately, business is about helping others to get what they need and want. Caring is about developing an external focus. It’s not about you. It’s about them. As Stan Beecham notes in Elite Minds, “Performance increases as one’s obsession and concern for self decreases.” Where you can Get Over Yourself, you’ll become someone upon which others can rely by being a good GOY. Learn to look out instead of in. The more we focus on others the better we can perform. Give to get. Help others. Dig to uncover their issues and concerns. Embrace empathy by trying to walk a mile in your customers shoes as the way to commit to the care component of our 4Cs of Customer Service framework.