Empathy is a Social Currency

Empathy in the organization

In their excellent book Humanize, authors Maddie Grant and Jamie Notter share their insights into why a truly successful business needs to take the reasons social media has enjoyed exponential growth as a business imprint, and implement it across the organization.

It takes more than simply activating staff on social media and being more “approachable” as a business on the social web – it’s a complete mindset and culture change, for which many organizations today are still not ready for.

It’s probably one of the best business books on this topic today, and is highly recommended.

But as well as offering a roadmap into why organizations need to adapt the social mindset to succeed in today’s business landscape, Humanize – and the underlying concepts within it – raises another, much more important factor: that of empathy as a social currency.

There’s More to Being Human Than Simply Being a People Business

Leading website Ragan.com, a destination for communications and PR professionals globally, published an article detailing the case of a waitress that worked at pub restaurant chain Hooters.

In the article, Sandra Lupo shares how she had to undergo surgery to remove a brain tumour. As a result of the surgery, she was left bald and sporting a scar from where the surgery left its mark.

Upon returning to Hooters, she was advised by her boss – via the Regional Manager for that particular locale – that she would have to wear a wig to hide her baldness.

Lupo couldn’t afford to pay for the wig; the manager of the restaurant wouldn’t cover the cost.  Lupo wore a borrowed one which caused scalp irritation so she stopped wearing it, her hours were cut as a result, and because of this chain of events Lupo quit.

She’s now suing the restaurant from a disability angle, which the restaurant is contesting.

Lupo’s case, and the article at Ragan.com, raises a key point that many organizations are failing to address today, when looking to turn their business into not only a social business, but one where the culture throughout is pervasive with the right mindset to begin with, from the top down.

We’ve spoken with, and helped, several organizations that have implemented cultural shifts. Shifts that:

  • Have enabled employees to become social ambassadors;
  • Have identified weak processes and pivoted where needed;
  • Have empowered people of all levels to help drive decisions because they’re the most suitable to do so, even if – by rank and seniority at the organization – they’re more junior.

And while this shift is important and offers validation of where we believe business needs to be moving, there are still many organizations that employ this approach and yet forget the core tenet of being human, or a social business, or a people-led organization.

And that tenet is empathy.

Empathy is a Social Currency

The greatest customer service assistant – whether in a retail environment or on the other end of a phone line in a call centre environment – knows that when a customer complains, it’s almost universally never directed at them in person.

Rather, it’s the brand that’s coming under fire.  With that knowledge, the CSA can adopt two approaches:

  • Tow the company line no matter what claims the customer may have that could be counter to the organization’s edict;
  • Apply empathy to the situation, placing themselves in the customer’s shoes, and working together to resolve the matter with no need for an escalation process to be invoked.

The former option may be the company’s preferred method, when working to the letter of the law, but it’s the latter that will leave a far more satisfactory outcome and potentially set that customer on the path to becoming a true brand advocate.

This approach has been taken with the more successful companies on social media; accepting that there will always be instances where a message was lost, a promotion was poorly timed, or a response took longer than normal.


As social media opens up multiple channels for the connected consumer to air grievances on, so the need grows for organizations to move away from just being a people business when it comes to customers, and adopt to being a provider in the empathy business as well.

But this should absolutely not be restricted to the customer on an external basis only – it should also be extended to the internal customer as well.

The Culture of Empathy for the Internal Customer

Smart organizations know that employees are also customers. They may not always buy the company product – that purchase still needs to earned by delivering on the sales promise – but they do help shape the purchase decisions of their family, friends and social connections.

Even away from the immediate connections, your employees – and their passion for the organization – are core to how your bottom line is affected.

When potential customers contact a business with regards a product, they don’t care about the sales team now. They’ve already researched the product online and through trusted peers, with 71% of consumers making a purchase based on social media referrals and 74% of consumers preferring social network peer connections to influence the decision-making process.

With the traditional sales team now being bypassed for their recommendations, customers are looking to talk directly with employees immediately attached to the product or service the inquiry is about.

According to Inc., if that employee isn’t up to speed with the product and the company’s support, future plans, comparisons to competitor products, hands-on support and more, that customer becomes a lost opportunity and will move on to your competitor.

As every organizational development trainer knows, the valued employee not only stays with the organization longer; they want to be an embedded part of the organization across multiple areas, and not just where their current position may limit them to.

And the way to value the employee? Empathy.

In the case of Sandra Lupo and Hooters, it could be argued that Hooters did nothing wrong legally. If part of the Hooters “experience” is the physical make-up of the waitresses, then Hooters could have a case that Lupo’s appearance didn’t match the company prerequisite, no matter how questionable we may feel that stance is (if, indeed, that is the company stance when defending the suit).

But the company line isn’t always the best one; nor does it have to be strictly adhered to.

The greatest leaders know that the ability to divert from a course of action, or a path that’s always been trod, is the biggest differentiator between a good company and a great one.

In the case of Hooters, the cost of providing a custom wig for a waitress would allow them to maintain the outward requirements of front-facing waitresses, while understanding and alleviating the pain of someone whose appearance is temporarily “different” through hugely unfortunate circumstances.

Instead of facing a legal case, they have shown belief and support for the people behind their company’s success – the very cultural approach that turns a people business into a human organization.

The Path to Empathy Starts Here

One of the biggest mistakes organizations make is in thinking the only requirement to be successful on social media – or business, in general – is to be human. That is, be your customer’s friend and speak to them as one.

Yet, as Humanize shows, and as many brands have found out, “being human” is not the same as humanizing your organization. Nor is it something your customers truly want.

In a report commissioned by the Corporate Executive Board, one of the key highlights that the report identified is consumers prefer simplicity in the decision-making process, leading to an 86% chance of interest turning into a purchase. Perhaps even more tellingly, only 23% actually cared about a brand relationship (or friendship), which counters the posit you need to be friends with your customers.

CEB report

Instead, the most successful organizations were the ones that were empathetic, in the word’s truest sense:

…the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; – Merriam Webster dictionary.

By understanding what it means to empathize, an organization can implement the culture needed to serve both internal and external customers to drive increased loyalty, engagement, advocacy and collaboration through involvement across the board.

Understanding the Mindset of Employees and Customers

Tracking software with advanced text analytics algorithms are beginning to identify true nuances of conversations between people. Nouns, verbs and adjectives can be layered upon the bigger conversation, and detect mood swings, emotional states, hidden messages and more.

Externally, being aware of these states of mind can help organizations prepare a message for individual customers (based on group personas as well as individual ones) that help show empathy to a current situation, and how your brand can help.

Internally, with tools like Yammer being widespread across many organizations, organizations can identify an employee who feels unappreciated or who has a great idea that isn’t being promoted. This clearly needs treading carefully with regards privacy and the employer/employee relationship, but is worth the effort to agree on with all parties.

Experiencing the Feelings of Another

There’s a reasonably popular television show called Undercover Boss, that explores what happens when the CEO of an organization is heavily disguised and placed into the workforce for a week, to see how well the company is run and identify the great people doing great things.

While not every organization’s CEO needs to do the same, remembering what it was that made your company such a great place to work in the first place is something that should be revisited often.

Adopt an open office policy where every employee’s views can be heard without bias or fear of recourse; spend a day on the job of various department workers; visit the facilities provided, like cafeteria and the quality of services provided to employees while in your care. Be an employee again to experience where your organization needs to make changes.

From a customer point of view, follow their footsteps at every touch-point of their connection to your organization. How does customer service handle their call; what does tech support look like; how are your resellers treating them; how are your complaints heard online when voiced? Be the customer again and resolve the issues before your competitors do.

Being a people organization is one thing; being an organization where people are human and empathize with the flaws as well as the strengths of other humans connected to the organization, both internally as well as externally, is where the true people part comes into play.

The challenge is yours to accept.

A version of this post originally appeared on the ArCompany blog.

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  1. says

    Excellent post Danny! I was very lucky to have some bona fide old skool sales techniques under my belt. One I was taught early was “your colleagues are internal customers”. I really liked seeing that sentiment echoed here. We run an international company with a customer service team of THREE. When our customers reach out, they know they will be speaking to a trusted voice. We recently had an error with an online form which caused an inadvertent double order/double bill situation. Our small team immediately responded to the customer, cancelled the extra order, and also made the changes to the form. However, being the superstars they are, customer service went a step further, apologized from a personal level, AND copied me in while I was on a road trip, as this was a valued customer which whom I had a personal relationship. And the first person in my office when I got back from my sales trip was head of customer service, looking to personally connect with me about this. Our customer felt listened to, responded to, and more importantly, cared about. I know that we will work together in the future due to the empathy our team has and shows. A very timely piece, sir, thank you.

    • says

      RebeccaTodd And who said “old skool was old fashioned”? :)
      You know, it’s a simple fact of business – without customers, you don’t succeed. Without great people to look after these customers at all touchpoints – research, sales, after-service, tech support, etc – again you don’t have a business. So why do so many companies make it so hard to work with this one simple edict?
      As your company shows, having empathy for what went wrong and resolving goes a much longer way than letting the customer go because they didn’t seem worthy of the time to look at where your processes could be improved.
      Maybe they’ll learn with the next customer. Before it turns out to be their last customer.
      Thanks miss!

  2. Mark Longbottom says

    Great post Danny, what made me smile was why the person should need to have a wig in the first place. It just happened a couple of days a go i saw a young lady who lives close ot me, i don’t see her often and don’t know here personally, we live in an area though where everyone smiles and says hello but not always her age group she’s around 19. Oh yes I forgot to say she has little or know hair and looks to all the world like she has an illness or disability that causes this. I have yet to see someone act negatively to her.
    If i were the employer of the person in the case study above i would happily have let her work in the restaurant, if she chose to do so and was ok with the position she was in. After that if the customers are not happy it is them that need to show empathy for the situation.  Not suympathy and not the crass human patronising that many in business do but actual human kindness.
    If we can can naturally and care in  our everyday lives why then do business people feel it has to be an issue to be solved in business, too many times I see and hear this.  So many social media gurus and marketers claiming they are changing the world, by what? Doing what everyone was doing anyway, talking to each other naturally without hidden agendas.
    Sounds simplistic but so many business coaches and developers have no idea about the reality of life and how to live it as is shown in their blog posts, definitely not your Danny :)

    • says

      Mark Longbottom You know, mate, it’s a sad state of affairs when we can even think that a course of action by a business may be the right business decision, when it impacts a human being’s dignity this way. Have we really become that shallow? Surely the expertise is the important thing here, and how that person does their job, versus the material looks over knowledge so many businesses are sucked into.
      Thanks for reminding me what’s important, sir, appreciated as always.

      • Mark Longbottom says

        Danny Brown Mark Longbottom Without sounding like someone from Woodstock, what’s important is inside and what’s inside most businesses is ‘life’ so many businesses don’t use – utilise or even know where or who has the most energy and emotion to really carry the message across to the people who matter most. It may be the CEO it maybe the doorman, it should always be everyone together :)

  3. says

    It’s true. At the other end of any company, website or blog post is a human being. In the world of social media we begin to feel disconected. As this seems to be the way of the future, we have to realize we’re still connected. “Empathy is a social currency”. I love that.

  4. kimberlymccabe says

    As usual Danny writes a terrific post. It’s a hard story to tell. I have been talking about being a “social business”, being authentic, listening to what people are saying… and sometimes I get tired of the knee-jerk defensive responses. It’s amazing that in this world where social media is so important, there is a lot of NO a lack of asking social experts to elaborate or explain, a big perception that social media’s value lies in marketing and an insistence on constructing a quick ROI. It’s frustrating but I will keep being empathetic and trying to influence change.

    • says

      kimberlymccabe I think one of the biggest problems is that we’ve built this belief that social is instantaneous, so businesses want instantaneous results as well. The thing is, the instantaneous part of the equation is the feedback and intelligence we can garner from our customers, and then implement that into building a long-term, successful business model for both internal and external customers.
      Like you say, miss, if we could start working from that framework, we’d all be in a better place. Cheers, Kimberly!

  5. says

    Excellent points as always! Not much I can add to this except to let you know, I’ll be pinning this to share with others (BTW – you don’t have a Pin it button on here).

  6. says

    This made me think of those Restaurant shows where a famous Chef comes in and revamps the place to function well. Sometimes the Owner wants nothing to do with the Chef and wants to kick them out. If customers are complaining and you just take a defense and say they are wrong, you will have no more customers. Some of the best companies and products in the world came to be because of customer and user input for improvement. Not the staff or research development teams. The value of constructive criticism is the difference between success and failure.

    • says

      @Release Liners Ha, great example! I watch Ramsay’s Kitchen Nightmares when it’s on, and it’s always funny to see the owners fight him to begin with (which is understandable, it’s their baby and no-one likes to be proven wrong when it comes to something like that). Yet, as you say, by letting someone with real experience help, it can completely transform the business.
      Maybe we should start putting Gordon Ramsay in front of more executives… 😉

      • rexwedge says

        Danny Brown Gordon is very successful but he is not a man I would want associated with my business! He si actually a great example of a man who does not emphasise with others, the only right way is Gordon’s way. I enjoyed the article.

  7. says

    Relating to a product or the image a product has is the first part of marketing. All consumerism is based on is a product or service that can make your life or job easier or better. What part of marketing isn’t empathy?

  8. CogentCoach says

    DannyBrown traackr Enjoyed it! Wonder if SMBs will lead this charge – being nimble, adaptable, and “social” as a mindset not a tool set

    • DannyBrown says

      CogentCoach Cheers! Definitely have the fluidity that larger orgs lack, but can lack resources to really effect properly. Catch 22 traackr

      • mainwilk says

        DannyBrown But then an innovator comes along w/bold vision & forces rest to catch up salesforce BoxHQ expensify CogentCoach traackr 😉

        • CogentCoach says

          mainwilk DannyBrown salesforce BoxHQ expensify traackr Yes! You have to “disrupt” an industry or vertical, not just a business!

      • CogentCoach says

        DannyBrown traackr Hard to be “disruptive” & stay that way through growth – treacherous path for culture from entrepreneurial to managed!