Empathy – The Missing Element in Relationship Marketing

James T. Berger headshot

James T. Berger
Senior Marketing Writer

Published January 3, 2009

In this winter of our discontent, where survival seems to be what everybody’s trying to do, it seems remarkable that for lack of empathy  – people and companies are jeopardizing valuable relationships.  One wonders if it’s simply lack of feeling, plain stupidity or incredible arrogance.

My idea of EMPATHY is the ability to try to realize how other people feel and adjust one’s behavior to take into account these feelings.  As a marketer or sales person, understanding the feelings and needs of the customer is crucial to making that sale or exchange and for maintaining the long-term relationship. But yet, look at these people and organizations trying and sometimes failing to survive and how they have completely disregarded the concept of empathy.

The classic examples are the three U.S. auto executives who first came to Washington seeking a government handout.  How did they get there?  The corporate jet.  The next time they came, they drove.  As shareholders or employers or worse-yet laid-off employees, the arrogance of taking a corporate jet to ask for a government handout is incredibly absurd.  Why couldn’t these high-priced, highly-paid executives show some empathy?

Then there is the case of John Thain, the Merrill Lynch CEO, who managed the downfall of the “Thundering Herd” and arranged for the fire sale that got Bank of America to buy the troubled company.  Thain still believed he was entitled to his $10 million bonus.  Is it greed, stupidity or simply lack of empathy?   There is a very commonly used Jewish expression that has made its way into the English vernacular – Chutzpah – it means incredible nerve.  A $10 million bonus for taking a giant corporation to the junk pile on your watch!!

How about the six Harvard University fund managers who presided over the 30 percent drop in the value of the Harvard endowment principally from the stock market crash?  Their combined compensation – over $26 million.  The empathy burden falls to Harvard on this one.  Managing endowments and funds portfolio is not rocket science.  These fund managers are generally measured on how well they perform versus the S&P 500 or some other large, diversified stock index.  As incredible as it might seem, many of these high-priced asset managers don’t even do as well as the S&P 500.  Now Harvard University could have taken its stock-based assets and simply put it into a S&P 500 Index Fund.  They probably would have come out as well – or even better – than the $26 million sextet.  Where is the empathy, Harvard, toward these people who contributed to your fine university?

We all experience this lack of empathy with our everyday dealings.  Just a week ago, I found that a rather expensive laser printer cartridge that I had recently bought from them wasn’t working property so I decided to take it back.  The smart, empathetic thing to do was to replace it.  They didn’t want to do that.  They simply offered to have it tested and if it turned out that it was faulty, they would have me come back to the store (a distance of 30 miles both ways) and then pick up a replacement.  I simply walked out of the store even though I had come in to buy new cartridges.  I wonder – is business so good in such a competitive area that a retailer can let a long-standing a good customer walk out of the store angry and dissatisfied?  Where’s the empathy?

Of course there are examples of corporations that do show the empathy.  My favorite airline, Southwest, has made a successful business of trickle-down empathy.  They treat their employees well and their enthusiasm trickles down to the customer.  Southwest, unlike its competitors, has put themselves into the shoes of its customers.  It understands what we need – planes that leave and arrive on time, comfortable seats, and the reluctance to charge extra for things that one expect to get for free.  Southwest displays empathy and it has taken them a long way.

As we all embark on the New Year, we find a troubled economy with no real end in sight.  However, we have a house-cleaning in Washington.  So far, I like what I see with respect to the empathy put forth by the new man in charge.

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About The Author

James T. Berger headshot
James T. Berger, Senior Marketing Writer of The Wiglaf Journal, through his Northbrook-based firm, James T. Berger/Market Strategies, offers a broad range of marketing communications, research and strategic planning consulting services. In addition, he provides expert services to intellectual property attorneys in the area of trademark infringement litigation. An adjunct professor of marketing at Roosevelt University, he previously has taught at Northwestern University, DePaul University, University of Illinois at Chicago and The Lake Forest Graduate School of Management. He holds degrees from the University of Michigan (BA), Northwestern University (MS) and the University of Chicago (MBA). Berger is an often-published free lance business writer who has developed more than 100 published articles in the last eight years. For more information, visit www.jamesberger.net or telephone him at (847) 328-9633.