For CEOs Aiming To Keep Customers, Empathy Matters

When service fails (like it did for football legend Terry Bradshaw) companies should try to envision what a great experience can look like.

There’s a little secret about empathy in corporate America that doesn’t get talked about much. Here it is: It’s a great thing to have at any time, but it’s never more important than when a customer complaint goes viral.

Take the recent example of a famous customer forced to wander around an Illinois Walmart in search of an associate who could help when all he wanted to do was buy a bicycle for his granddaughter.

“We couldn’t get anyone to wait on us at the store. We stopped three people and asked them, ‘Would you help us buy this bike?’ We picked it out, we even eventually got it down from the top just by trial and error. We got nobody to help us,” said the customer, later identified as NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

Walmart’s fumble turned into a rout after Bradshaw was told a customer service rep was on their way to assist, but no one showed up, leading him to share his frustrations in a viral social media video post in which he slammed Walmart—and advised his followers to shop at competitors.

True retail has no walls. Done properly, CEOs of omnichannel sellers can have their companies enable something that’s much bigger and actually create a continuous conversation and dialogue with a customer. After his all-too-common experience, Bradshaw lamented, “Maybe that’s just the way it is.” But it doesn’t have to be.

Indeed, this is the way it should have (could have!) happened: Bradshaw and family look over the options and pick out a bike they may want to buy. There’s a QR code at the display a shopper can take a photo of with their phone. Up pops a live video of someone on the other end who says, “Hello and thank you for shopping at Walmart. I see that you’re interested in buying a bike today. I can help some provide product info or recommended sizes if that would help. If you’re all set, we can get this ordered up and it’ll be waiting for you at register X. By the way, most of the time when people buy a bike, one of the things they dislike most is putting it together. I can send you a company video showing the assembly steps if that would help. And I can assist you with items that many customers buying a bicycle also need, like a helmet, a pump, a bell or a light. We can have any of those items also brought to the register if you’d like, or shipped to your home—just let me know how I can assist you.” It’s unlikely Bradshaw would have created a video praising how effective this type of service was, but he likely would have walked away a satisfied customer, with multiple purchases.

Empathy doesn’t necessarily have to show up in a physical human form—it could show up in a digital human form that scales a lot more easily and creates a much better omnichannel customer experience at a lower cost.

The Bradshaw incident, of course, isn’t merely about Walmart getting widespread negative attention. It’s the fact that top executives at the world’s biggest brick-and-mortar retailer and one of the biggest online sellers failed to recognize the power of a digitally distributed message – these people don’t care about their customers – that spread across the globe before executives could even begin to survey the damage.

It’s a scenario that plays out often. And if you review lists of prominent and recent PR disasters, you’ll begin to see how each and every situation would have benefited from a helping of executive empathy, across all channels.

It’s vital to have empathetic leaders and employees who know they’re cared for. But it’s equally vital to have CEOs who recognize what omnichannel empathy looks like. For empathy to truly drive success, it has to be projected both inward and out. As the London School of Economics demonstrated recently, empathy is a skill, a learned trait that can benefit everything from customer and employee retention to business innovation.

That was especially true during Covid, when restrictions increased a society-wide sense of isolation and pushed even more commerce to digital platforms. Every business and every CEO, even those you’d think would be prepared, can be exposed instantly during an unempathetic moment, but in that risk also lies opportunity.

Yes, executives at companies with millions of daily customers might be too busy to pay attention to just one, even if that one is famous. But if empathy is truly a skill, couldn’t the identification and proper resolution of just such a scenario be built within a company? And couldn’t that make the company’s relationship with its customers that much better?

Shouldn’t there be more greatly empowered social media minders who can immediately escalate such a situation to try to achieve a better outcome? Pardon the pun, but is that basic blocking and tackling a policy at your organization? A lot of times the deterrent to empathy is process and compliance. Couldn’t a Facebook or TikTok video that showed a quick reaction and equitable solution to Terry Bradshaw’s problem have been a game changer?

These are the sorts of questions any CEO should be asking at any time, but especially at a moment when consumers have a maximum amount of choice, and when opportunities to further drive omnichannel sales are utterly missed.

Empathy isn’t just how you respond to a customer complaint, of course. But such a situation typifies the need to prioritize empathy in every step of a company’s interactions with its customers. Executives have a new set of opportunities to show their customers they care. Empathy matters, but never more than when it’s in short supply, in the store and on the internet.

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