Empathy in the Workplace and Marketplace Pays Off


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Having placed her parents in senior living gives one of our agents, Marilee, a particularly sensitive ear to families seeking similar care for their loved ones. Marilee said she was working full time as an office manager and part-time children’s choir director when it came time to get senior care for her mom and dad. As much as she wanted to, she couldn’t take them into her own home.

Marilee works on one of our client accounts that helps families find senior living for their loved ones. “I really relate to those individuals who call in and say: ‘I don’t really want to do this. My mother doesn’t want to go. But she needs help and I can’t give it to her.’ Whenever I get an inkling that’s the situation with one of my callers, I really take the time to explain that sometimes having parents in your own home isn’t the best for them—or for you.” It’s not uncommon to be on the phone with family members who burst into tears. When that happens, Marilee lets them know how much she cares and gently leads them in the right direction.

She empathizes, having been there herself. “I get all kinds of calls and my goal is always to get them the help they need.”

Marilee helps us retain an important client and serve their customers well.

Economics of Empathy

Ever think about the economics of empathy? Said another way, empanomics—the dollars and sense behind success.

It involves sensing, really knowing, how people feel—good, bad or indifferent—about working for, and doing business with, your organization. Just consider:

  • How do clients feel about your company as a business partner?
  • How do employees and contractors feel about working for you?
  • How do customers feel about the reps who sell and service your offerings?

A few years back, Belinda Parmar authored a Harvard Business Review article, “The Most (and Least) Empathic Companies.” Parmar, founder of The Empathy Business, wrote: “There is a direct link between empathy and commercial success. Businesses are more profitable and productive when they act ethically, treat their staff well, and communicate better with their customers.”

She defined empathy as a cognitive and emotional understanding of others’ experiences. These qualities are increasingly important as social media feeds popular demand for transparency and authentic interaction. The Lady Geek analysis, which focuses on global companies, looked at CEOs’ approval ratings among staff; the ratio of women to men on the board; frequency of complaints; the companies’ performance on social networks; and the impact of controversy such as ethical lapses, scandals, and fines — among other metrics.

Among the more interesting findings:

  • Five of the 10 most empathic companies are based in Silicon Valley. They’re also among the most profitable (the top five companies make up for 15% of the index’s total market capitalization), and the fastest growing (their market capitalization has grown this year by 23.3% compared to a weighted average of 5.2% of all the companies in the index).
  • At the other end of the empathy spectrum are car companies. Mercedes is 91st on the list, Toyota 94th, VW 95th, and Honda 108th. There are two outliers, however: Tesla in third place and Audi in 10th. Note that Audi dramatically outperformed its parent company, VW, due to high scores for its CEO, while VW’s score suffered from the ongoing emissions scandal and low approval ratings for its recently departed CEO, Martin Winterkorn.
  • U.S. banks are proving quicker to wake up to the benefits of empathy, scoring 50% higher than their UK counterparts.

Makes good business sense. Right? Caring drives commerce. As Parmar observed, there are opportunities for empathy at every touchpoint throughout your organization. Like profit-and-loss statements, they can be measured in client conversations, worker interactions and customer engagements.

The Most (and Least) Empathetic Companies

Source: Source: Lady Geek, HBR.ORG, 2015

Culture of Caring

Whatever the metric, how well you relate to, and connect with, people contributes to success. And to succeed, you’ve got to relate and commit on levels understood and appreciated by those who matter.

To that point, an article in Inc. posed this question: “Why does having a culture of caring matter?”

The answer: “Because it impacts your bottom line: culture impacts employee engagement, which in turn affects absenteeism, retention, and productivity. Culture also impacts the customer experience: happy cultures produce happy employees and therefore happy customers. Employees who are focused on the customer experience and see themselves as an empowered and important member of the team are more likely to provide a positive customer experience.”

And I should add, happy clients, whose customers are well-served by customer service representatives. Here’s where empathy, nurtured within a caring culture, proves to be a straightforward strategy for success. One begets the other.

Smart job applicants do their due diligence before applying for work. Cultures vary by companies. As does the value placed on—and the investment made in—workers.

Job-review sites, such as Glassdoor, reveal the good and the bad about a place, with candid reviews by employees and contractors. Their comments sway not only applicants but also influence business decisions when selecting service providers. And emotional intelligence is a factor.

It can differentiate an in-touch company from an out-of-touch workplace, be it in-office or remote. Numbers do tell and people gravitate to where they’ll feel appreciated, whether part-time or full-time. As a result, the caliber of applicants rises.

A caring culture promotes open communications and stimulates learning. Developing a transparent, sharing community can help workers feel valued and important. This can be even more important in a virtual business. A technology-based solution can help everyone feel part of a community and perform better with shared experiences.

In my career, I’ve experienced all types of leadership—bad, indifferent and good. As an employee at several companies and later a consultant, I went from fiercely competitive workplaces to detached management to leaders who do right by people, my preferred style.

From the start at the company I founded, we sought to establish a high degree of emotional intelligence, with both employees and agents, who are independent contractors working from home. Twenty years ago, we knew that making a strong, caring connection companywide only made sense in leading a remote, on-demand workforce.

Here’s why: If you show and feel genuine interest for your team or community, immediately you find the level of respect for clients and other team members increases. You also will find business results increase and the team is honestly happy with each other’s success.

Emotional Intelligence

Let’s cue up the emotional intelligence (EQ) quotient, of which empathy is a key factor. Because EQ plays into decision-making in the workplace and marketplace.

In its “Must Reads” series, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) compiled 10 articles into On Emotional Intelligence, featuring bestselling author Daniel Goleman.

HBR states: “In his defining work on emotional intelligence,” Goleman “found that it is twice as important as other competencies in determining outstanding leadership.”

To be sure, empathy influences many choices. Applicants consider it when applying for jobs. Clients weigh it when selecting business partners. Consumers review it when buying products and services. They factor empathy into their fiscal feelings—dollars and (what they) sense.

Parmar, who gave a TEDᵡ talk on empathy, is among today’s soft-side business specialists expounding the virtues of emotionally enriched operations. They praise companies that nurture it. Encourage others to embrace it. Question those lacking it.

To the expert, they advocate compassion and consideration when tending to business. Really caring about clients, customers and workers. Identifying with them. And remembering that line from the great Otis Redding song: “Try a little tenderness (that’s all you gotta do).”

Kim Houlne
As Working Solutions founder, Kim pioneered virtual contact center services across the USA in 1996. She accrued significant marketing and management experience before starting Working Solutions with senior management positions in consulting and financial and insurance industries at Mercer, Travelex, Mutual of Omaha and Blue Cross of Washington and Alaska.


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