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Empathy for the Future Sunday, November 2, 2014

Last week, I wrote about intuition as being one of the possible skills to develop in the age of Robots. One aspect of this intuition is the many hours of “training” to obtain the skill to such a degree that it is second nature or intuitive. This is the 10,000 hours that people refer to when talking about experts whose skills tower above everyone else.

There is another aspect of intuition: intuiting what people really want.

Take Starbucks: the company manages to elevate coffee to a status of a prestige brand. Since I don’t drink coffee, I’m not really clued in to how that was accomplished, but from my readings, it appears to be by developing a second home from home, through good customer relationships, and from producing an aura of the European café. However they did it, Starbucks has successfully elevated the image of coffee.

Southwest Airlines was another company mentioned in Marty Neumeier’s Metaskills book. On page 76 of the hardcover book, he compares two companies that strive to deliver service as a low-cost air carrier: Ryanair and Southwest Airlines. According to the book, Ryanair delivers its “low-cost” service by asking you to pay fees elsewhere: such as fees for baggage check in, fees for excess baggage weight, fees for forgetting to print out your ticket, and so on and so forth. So yes, the company reels you in with initial low fares but you may eventually end up paying the usual full fare once you add in all of the other necessary components of travel.

My takeaway from this little moral is that empathy for what your customers want will not come from strict watching of the bottom line. That is a solution for the short-term but can be terrible for the long-term. You make your company healthy by delighting your customer and giving them what they need. The bottom line thinking is for making sure you don’t overdo it such that you no longer have the money to sustain your business. If you can delight your customers, they will come back for more. Think Apple and their fanboys. Apple’s products are expensive but people buy them anyway. Their products are delivering an emotional wow.

So, on a personal level, what does that mean for us individually in the age of Robots? Probably we need to bring our personal touch that computers cannot deliver. We need to understand the people we work with and work for. We need to “care” for them. I think this is the art that Seth Godin speaks whereof. To me, bringing that something extra feels like something very closely tied to the 10,000 hours.

Again, this empathy skill does not seem like something that can be taught in school – I’m not sure. At least, it won’t be taught in the bottom line classes of accounting or finance. What schools need to do is continue to teach accounting and finance because they are valid tools for making sure business remain profitable enough to be an ongoing concern. But schools need to supplement these hard quality courses with lots of softer quality courses on what it means to service customers, what it means to delight customers, and how to make an emotional pitch to them. This is where storytelling comes in, and probably design and arts and all of the humanities courses, too. Shareholder value mantra needs to be relegated to the bottom of the value chain.

Starbucks did not become amazing because of the shareholder mantra; it became amazing because it delivered an emotional impact on the customers, thus elevating coffee to prestige status. No shareholder mantra can do that.