Lady Geek is an advocacy agency that embeds empathy into companies and publishes an annual ‘Global Empathy Index’. Its founder, Belinda Parmar, explains how increasing brand empathy can lead to improved commercial performance
How important is it that companies try to show customers empathy?
I think it’s more important than ever before for two reasons. One is millennials – 71 per cent want their colleagues to be a second family. When I went to work 20 years ago I just did what my boss told me. Most people did. What we’re seeing now with millennials is that they won’t accept that. That’s not what they’re looking for. Millennials coming into the workplace has changed everything. Secondly, social media. It really has transformed how business is done.
How has the proliferation of social media impacted the need for companies to be more empathic?
Social media has lifted the veil off. It’s showing what’s underneath. Companies could have a really polished veneer, a bit like fake empathy. It could be very polished, very fake. Now the veil is off and people are asking what’s underneath. Is it a good, ethical business making money but also doing good for society?
A lot of companies get their interns to manage their social media accounts? Is that a good idea?
I don’t necessarily think asking interns to work on your social media is a bad idea because interns can become very much a part of your company. I’ve got two of the most amazing interns and they do some of our social media. I know they have a deep understanding of the business and they’re mindful of the business’ vision. Ultimately, whether they’re an intern, janitor, receptionist or CEO, it makes no difference. What’s important is that they ‘get’ the purpose and vision of your business.
Are there certain people or teams within a company who should be responsible overall for showing customers empathy, or should it be the focus of everyone?
The latter. I really get frustrated when a CEO invites me along to talk to them about empathy and they tell me to talk to their HR department. I’ll say “no”. Not that HR aren’t brilliant and important but I want to speak to the CEO. I want to speak to the people running the business who are making the money. It’s very easy to say empathy is someone else’s responsibility then go away and do your own thing, but it’s a business issue. It’s a company-wide issue. It is not an HR issue.
Should companies first and foremost focus on hiring employees with empathy, then train them in the other skills required for the job?
I think the recruitment process is really, really key. Going back to the empathy journey, right from the job ad to the training when you’re in a company. It can’t just be one side of the organisation. What’s interesting is that very systematic companies, which are very logical and analytical, such as banks and automobile companies, tend to focus on the salary in the job ad. So a typical job ad will say “you can get £56,000 per year” and, after that figure, there will be an asterix saying “but that’s only if you do X, Y and Z.” For an empathiser, you don’t want people in your business who are just motivated by money. I’m not saying money isn’t important but you want to get someone who is thinks of their job as being so much more than that.
You really need to look at the recruitment right from the job ad. Just to give an example of how important words are, one FTSE 100 company changed the wording in a job ad from ‘technology manager’ to ‘digital manager’ and it got 30 per cent more women applying for the job. So I think you need to think about every word.
How can companies ensure they’re employing empathic people?
A lot of companies have these laborious tests, in which they say things like “tell me about a time when you were in conflict.” Everyone has always prepared an answer. What they do at Lego is they say “you’re talking to a customer and she’s a new mum. You call her up and hear a baby crying. What do you do?” For me, that is the recruitment of empathy.
Are there any brands out there doing a particularly good job of showing customers empathy?
At Lady Geek we’ve compiled an empathy index in which we took the US and UK stock exchange companies and rated them. The Silicon Valley companies are doing brilliantly, such as LinkedIn, Microsoft, Tesla, Google. They are leading the way in empathy because they care about their cultures. Their CEOs do everything from offering to freeze female employees’ eggs to offering free babysitting. They’re really putting effort into being empathic.
Are there any brands that haven’t quite been getting it right?
Ryan Air. Sports Direct. The FTSE 100 companies are an empathic wasteland. They don’t get empathy. The US companies get it. We don’t get it in the UK because we, as a nation, are emotionally constipated. When you talk about empathy people go: “Oh, is that us all holding hands and being nice to each other?” Absolutely an empathic wasteland. Silicon Valley, got it, nailed it. Look at their profits compared to the FTSE 100.
What advice would you give to brands looking to be more empathic towards customers?
For an already established company, they need to hire a company like the Lady Geeks to measure their empathy levels. Ones that are starting out need to recruit for empathy. Have an environment that is empathic. If you’re recruiting lots of empathisers and put them in a very logical place they can’t be themselves and they leave their personalities at the door. No point. So create an empathic culture through benefits, a flat structure and empowerment.
To find out more, visit theempathybusiness.co.uk