There are no shortcuts to becoming a beloved, blockbuster brand. Today’s consumers want to buy from companies that walk their talk when it comes to branding. It’s no longer okay to call yourself “innovative,” but never invest a dime in R&D. It no longer flies with stakeholders to say you care about gender equality, but never have more than one token woman on the board.
What’s more, employees want to work for companies that do more than pay lip-service to being an empathetic brand. One Deloitte study shows that 75 percent of millennials are looking for an employer who will mentor them and nurture their innate talents.
So, if you want to project a more authentic brand promise and attract the best talent, it’s clear that empathy-washing is no substitute for the hard work of building an empathetic brand from the inside out. Here’s a “cheat sheet” for identifying traits of empathetic brands and a “sanity check” for creating an authentic culture of empathy that sticks.
Cheat sheet: traits of empathetic brands
Empathetic companies see brand and culture as two sides of the same coin. The most effective leaders understand that employees will only engage with, delight in, and connect with customers when they experience the same in the workplace.
Mission and values: The company’s mission informs every action employees take.
Empathetic brands don’t simply write up a mission statement because it’s in every blueprint for writing a business plan. Instead, authentically empathetic brands encourage employees to consider the vision and values of the company on a daily basis and ensure that every key decision aligns with the mission.
One company that has found alignment on mission and values is Warby Parker. The online eyeglass company has been offering stylish eyewear at a low price since it was founded in 2010. But as the startup grew to around 20 employees, the co-founders realized they hadn’t established what values mattered the most to the brand. In a podcast interview, they explained the collaborative process they used to develop their company culture.
“We went through an exercise [where] people wrote down individual values that are important to [them]… We got over 200 different values which led to a bunch of discussions about which values were the same, which ones were different, which ones were critically important,” said co-CEO, Dave Gilboa.
If you set the stage for engagement and create an environment where employees want to participate, everyone can collaborate to develop a more empathetic culture.
Customer service: Employees are empowered to address customer issues on the spot
Technology and increased transparency in business mean front-line employees are closer to the customer than ever before. It also means customer expectations for getting their claims handled quickly and easily have increased. If your customer service policies don’t keep pace, you risk unhappy customers and unhappy employees.
Here are two tips for getting customer service right:
Train employees to ask — and echo back — customer concerns. Customer service is one of the toughest jobs to have in certain industries. But if you teach customers to default to empathy, you teach them to diffuse some of the most difficult situations.
Get leaders on the same page. When leaders trust their employees to handle customer issues and give them the support they need, employees feel empowered. So employees need to see leaders embracing the culture of empathy, not simply paying lip-service to it.
Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, is synonymous with “amazing customer service.” One reason they have earned this reputation is that all their customer service representatives have the authority to accept special-case returns, offer refunds, pay for damages, and “WOW” customers by offering any other solution as they see fit. This means they can be empathetic to customer concerns on the fly and adapt the right resolution for that particular person.
Community partnership: The company shows empathy for the larger community
Again, building a reputation for being a good community partner takes more than pointing to the charity golf tournament the CEO played in — that one time back in 2012. That said, feel free to start small. Rather than hatching a plan to tackle a huge transformation project, focus on sparking empathy slowly through cumulative actions. Start by creating an environment of trust where everyone feels safe enough to speak up during meetings.
With the key traits of empathetic brands in mind, let’s look at three questions you can start with as a “sanity check” for your own company culture.
Sanity check: Do we have an authentically empathetic culture?
By now, the benefits of creating an empathetic brand are clear: empathy leads to stronger customer connections, elevated productivity, and increased sales. But how do you really know if you are walking your talk or pretending to be something you are not?
The following three questions will help to ensure your company is authentically empathetic:
1. Are we aligned on mission and values?
Just as we can easily recognize “greenwashing” marketing tactics, your customers will pick up on a false mask of empathy simply to increase sales. To avoid the appearance of inauthentic empathy, ensure you are living up to your mission and values and demonstrate this to your customers.
2. What internal policies or practices are in place to foster empathy?
Once you know the messaging aligns with your company culture, make sure your internal practices match your messaging. This is walking your talk. In case you think no one is watching, studies show that more Americans expect companies to display empathy. Review top to bottom your customer service, hiring, employee, promotion, and vendor policies. Adjust if needed.
3. Are we building a safe and trusting environment?
Last, but not least, creating an environment where employees feel safe and heard is key to developing a culture of authentic empathy. When employees feel supported in collaborating and taking risks in the name of innovation, companies evolve in the most impressive ways.
There are no shortcuts on the journey to developing an authentically empathetic brand. This means everything from making sure company policies align with core values to rewarding behaviors that generate positive results. When you focus on these things first and ensuring any changes resonate with employees, you’ll create empathy from the inside out.