Why IT leaders should prioritize empathy

Empathy is much more than a ‘nice-to-have’ soft skill – it can help drive business success. Here’s how, plus a few ways to encourage empathy throughout your team
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soft skills: relationship-building

It’s no surprise that organizations that practice empathy can satisfy customers better than organizations that don’t. While most leaders recognize the good business sense of prioritizing empathy, few know how to put that value into practice.

In fact, Harvard Business Review found that 61 percent of senior business leaders struggle to balance their employees’ need for support with their company’s drive for high performance.

IT leaders may struggle with this balancing act, often prioritizing constant product updates over the customer experience. But to reap the benefits of an empathetic workplace, organizations should view empathy as a necessary part of their internal and external-facing operations. Ultimately, a company-wide commitment to empathy yields stronger customer relationships and more satisfied employees.

Empathy: Easy in theory, difficult in practice

It’s simple enough to practice empathy outside of work, but IT challenges make practicing empathy at work a bigger struggle. Fairly or unfairly, many customers expect technology to work 100 percent of the time. When it doesn’t, it falls on IT leaders to go into crisis mode. Considering many of these applications are mission-critical to the customer’s organizational performance, their reaction makes sense.

[ Also read IT leadership: Why adaptability matters. ]

An unempathetic employee in this situation would ignore the context behind a customer’s emotional response. They might go on the defensive or fail to address the customer’s concerns with urgency. A response like this can prove detrimental to customer loyalty and retention – it takes up to 12 positive customer experiences to make up for one negative experience.

Every workplace consists of many different personality types and cultural backgrounds – all with different understandings of and comfort toward practicing empathy. Because of this diversity, aligning on a single company-wide approach to empathy is easier said than done. Yet if your organization fails to secure employee buy-in around the importance of empathy, you risk alienating your customers and letting employees who aren’t well-versed in empathetic communication hold you back.

What does empathy look like for your business?

Sympathy and empathy are often used interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference between the two. Sympathy happens when we express pity or concern for someone’s situation. We recognize the emotions the person is feeling, but based on our own perspective. We may even judge the person for how their emotions manifest.

Empathy, on the other hand, means reaching a deeper level of understanding by putting ourselves in the other person’s shoes without judgment. We may not fully relate to the other person’s situation, but by empathizing, we can make them feel understood and validated.

3 ways to show customer empathy

In a business context, understanding empathy is vital. It’s the difference between a surface-level customer service response and one that goes above and beyond. Here are three ways your organization can go the extra mile to show empathy to your customers:

1. Start by treating your employees with empathy

Remember the old adage: Treat others as you want to be treated? Well, for business leaders, your new golden rule should be: Treat your employees as you want your customers to be treated.

For business leaders, your golden rule should be: Treat your employees as you want your customers to be treated.

When employees feel trusted and understood, they’re more likely to exceed expectations in their roles. Sixty one percent of employees with highly empathetic senior leadership report they’re often innovative at work, compared to only 13 percent of employees with less empathetic leadership.

In addition to practices like active listening and basic respect, empathy also means understanding employees’ day-to-day challenges. For example, what issues do they navigate using internal communication apps? What are the most common customer situations they encounter? Asking about problem areas shows employees you care about their experience. But don’t stop there. It’s up to senior leadership to respond with empathetic solutions.

[ Related read The new CEO: Chief Empathy Officer ]

2. Make the extra effort to understand your customer

Many organizations struggle to be empathetic simply because of how emotionally draining it is. They assume that one good conversation is enough, failing to recognize that empathy is a habit, not a box they can check off.

To make empathy a habit, encourage employees to spend more time listening to customers’ needs than talking about what your organization can offer. When an issue does arise, reps should try to learn all they can about it. For example, they could request a screen share of the issue before chiming in with solutions – anything to understand the customer and their needs better. A deep level of understanding helps employees determine what their organization can and can’t provide the customer.

3. Make a long-term commitment to practicing empathy

Empathy can improve both employee and customer relationships, but only if your organization treats it as a long-term commitment and not a passing trend. For example, a study of major tech companies found that job postings began using words like “flexible,” “empathy” and “belonging” at an increased rate in 2020. Since then, phrases like “fast-paced,” “aggressive” and “discipline” have taken the place of supportive terms. The lesson here is that your organization’s commitment to empathy shouldn’t fluctuate over time – it should only become stronger.

One way to commit to long-term improvement is by conducting customer and employee satisfaction surveys throughout the year. Ask about a customer’s experiences with specific employees, product features, and how your service compares to competitors. Review the results of these surveys and identify the most relevant areas of improvement. Consistently improving in these problem areas will help you develop organizational empathy over time.

Empathy is the foundation for continued growth

Every successful business leader must work with people they don’t agree with. Collaboration requires compromise and compromise requires understanding. For your organization to grow, everyone must commit to empathetic communication – from your CEO to your interns.

By going out of your way to satisfy customers, treating employees with empathy, and committing to long-term improvement, your organization can collaborate more efficiently and achieve continuous growth.

[ Check out essential career advice from 37 award-winning CIOs! Get a variety of insights on leadership, strategy, and career development from IT executives at Mayo Clinic, Dow, Aflac, Liberty Mutual, Nordstrom, and more: Ebook: 37 award-winning CIOs share essential IT career advice. ]

Kevin Dattolico is CEO of Americas at Syntax. He joined the company in April 2020 as Chief Revenue Officer of the Americas. He had an immediate impact on the organization, growing the Sales pipeline, delivering the highest-quality customer service, and providing visionary leadership.