Whose job is empathy?

My laptop froze last week. I bring this up because when I called Apple to get some help, I ended up feeling like I’d made a new friend.

Nathan was a delight to speak to. He got that I was pushed for time and stressed. There was no fake bumf at the start about me being a valued customer. Just a friendly bloke with a no-problem-too-small attitude. It’s the first time I’ve ever hung on for the survey afterwards.

So if Nathan can do it, why can’t Apple CEO Tim Cook?

Here’s an extract of an email he sent to all employees at the start of the summer, summoning them back to the office on three fixed days a week:

For all that we’ve been able to achieve while many of us have been separated, the truth is that there has been something essential missing from this past year: each other.

Now, I’ll be the first to agree that the tone here is a million miles away from the officious boardroom voice most people with a C in their title seem programmed to use. The words are warm and the tone’s heartfelt enough (if anything, it gushes too much to ring totally true to my ears). But behind the words lies a lack of empathy for the fact that not everyone’s situation is the same.

Turns out Apple employees agreed. They sent Cook a letter in response:

Without the inclusivity that flexibility brings, many of us feel we have to choose between either a combination of our families, our wellbeing, and being empowered to do our best work, or being a part of Apple... Over the last year we often felt not just unheard, but at times actively ignored.

Yikes. Ignored. That’s not how you want your people to feel.

Ignored people aren’t known for being the happiest at work

And they tend not to be the most empathetic either. In fact, I have a suspicion that if Nathan had been one of the signatories, he might not have been quite so friendly and helpful when I called.

That would be a shame. Having a modern approach to dealing directly with customers is one of Apple’s USPs. And one they’ve probably spent millions cultivating.

It’s not what you spend, it’s where you spend it

Most businesses – Apple included – invest heavily in training their frontline teams. After all, they’re the ones speaking to customers day in, day out. Leadership typically get a decent slice of the empathy training pie, too (although Tim Cook could maybe do with a refresher).

If you only train the top and the bottom, that’s a whole chunk of people missing out. And these are the people who play an important part in defining your company culture.

We’re talking middle management

True, they might not be picking up the phone when a disgruntled customer dials in. But how empathetically they treat the people on their teams will have a direct impact on how they deal with the next customer they speak to.

If just one unempathetic email from Tim Cook can instigate an uprising (and he probably only sends a couple of all-company memos a year) just imagine how the thousands of emails your mid-section fire off every working day could bolster or chip away the spirits of the people on the front line. One email at a time.

Whose job is empathy? It’s everyone’s. Including the people the customer never even speaks to.

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