The year is 2008 and I just turned 18 a few months back; I’m still living at home with both my parents and my two brothers—I’m the middle child (if you hadn’t guessed that already). It’s only been about six months since I graduated high school, so I still have at least six months left in what I’m calling my ‘buffer-year.’ To be honest, I don’t really know what I’m going to do with my life next. Freshman and sophomore years of high school were pretty good—I stayed focused on my grades and my GPA reflected it. But the summer before my junior year, I caught a bad case of (early) senioritis and my class rank plummeted as Fs and Ds occupied progress reports for the entirety of my junior year; senior year was still a struggle, but my mediocrity was enough to get the diploma. None of that matters now though—high school is done, and I’m left trying to figure out how to spend the next 60 to 80 years of my life. Thankfully my family is supportive.
I’m working part-time at one of those pony-keg drive thru places and practicing full-time with my band—I’m not sure if we’ll go anywhere, but the process of creating something from nothing with some of my best friends keeps me optimistic. Other than that, not much is going on in my life right now: college seems like a distant and uncertain concept, and I don’t have the money to go off and travel the world—so for now, this is my life, and I’m okay with it.
It’s a fairly normal Sunday morning as I’m making my way to the kitchen to grab some breakfast—no one better have touched my yogurt, or I swear. My brothers and mom are in the living room as I make my way to the kitchen, leaning down first to give our little chihuahua some morning love pats on her little head. I hear a sniffle from my mom; It’s a little late in the year for allergies, isn’t it? I look over and my older brother is on his laptop with an intense focus in his eyes and suddenly, I can feel it now—something’s off; the room feels heavy, a little tense, and overwhelmingly sad.
With hesitation, I ask, “what’s wrong?”
“Your dad’s mom passed away last night.”
That’s when I realize what my brother’s doing—booking flights for my dad. See, my dad’s a big rig driver; he has been ever since I can remember, and a pretty darn good one at that. I’ve seen him navigate up, in, and out of spaces and places with eighteen wheels that most people couldn’t with four; how’s he going to steer through this one? At this moment, he’s in his truck and on his way back home from a long run out west—Wyoming, I think. I can’t help but wonder how he is taking the news. He’s alone, and driving. I hope he doesn’t wreck. I wish I was with him. I’ve never seen my dad cry before—not that emotion wasn’t tolerated in our household. It’s actually quite the opposite; my dad, my mom, maternal grandparents, even my brothers are all comfortable with both displaying and sharing emotions. My dad just processes and displays emotion differently; he seems to spend more time pondering and then supporting with this unique type of gentleness that required few, but impactful words. But this felt like it was going to be different, and mom must have known that—and that is when it hits me.
“He doesn’t know yet, does he?”
The answer is clear as we sit in silence.
In the space between sleep and awareness, a call had come in the night—a call that would change my life, but not for the reasons you may be thinking. I knew my dad’s mom, my grandmother, but not very well. She had always lived in Utah, and I’ve only been out there once in my life. What changed my life was never being able to forget the feeling in my heart as my dad walked through the front door, with his work bags in hand, completely unsuspecting of the sorrow he would soon be forced to carry, or the weight of his bags hitting the floor as his shoulders and chest sank when my mom told him. It was that exact moment, standing in the kitchen of our house on Melrose Avenue, that I saw my dad cry for the first time in my life, and that I truly, deeply, and wholly recognized that I felt empathy.
Life can be challenging; it can be messy, complicated, disorienting, and unjust.
Life can be exciting; it can be fun, surprising, joyful, and fair.
In the span of a week, think of all the emotions you experience based on your circumstance in life: the joy of holding your newborn baby you’ve waited a decade for, the nostalgia of smelling your leather baseball glove as you play catch with your daughter who just made the varsity team, or the catastrophe that follows the heart-wrenching decision of having to lay your family dog to rest—think of how often you have to dig deep within your consciousness to keep fighting and progressing with everything in your being. Your life is a matrix of winning, losing, learning, feeling, winning, and losing again; the good times are fantastic, and the bad times are almost unbearable. And yet, you still wake up, get ready for the day, and carry forward—performing your responsibilities in your profession and your relationships. This is you. This is most of us.
So why do we act like our customers aren’t the same? Why do we romanticize our customers into these unexpressive beings whose sole purpose is to do what we want them to do with our products, with no thought into how they feel, what they are experiencing, or their circumstances in life?
In Customer Success, we love to say we hold the role of trusted advisor to our customers near and dear in our identity, with claims of making sure the customer gets the value they are looking for out of our products or services to meet their objectives. It’s the ‘trusted’ part that makes me pause. What makes us trusted? Why would a customer—a person—choose to trust a random employee of a random vendor for a random product they use? The answer is…they probably don’t. They probably don’t trust you just because they received an email from you saying that you are the new go-to person for all things product related and that you are there to make sure they get answers to questions and receive the value they purchased, and that they can contact you any time.
You can be more sincere than that. Demonstrating empathy means you have to take an interest in your customers as people first, customers second.
I won’t claim that ESG is perfect in all process, functionality, and philosophy—I’d argue no company is. However, our CEO, Michael Harnum has made it perfectly clear to employees and customers alike that ESG is an employee-first, people-first organization. It’s a philosophy that means thinking about how people will benefit, struggle, thrive, or stumble based on their fluctuating circumstances in life. It means understanding that people will perform their best over time when they aren’t expected to compartmentalize. It means that it’s okay to be down, it’s okay to struggle, and conversely, it’s okay to be happy and share that light with others. It means creating an environment where empathy can organically thrive throughout the organization.
Not everyone gets this right all the time; there are two quotes that I’ve personally heard that stand out in my mind and I can’t write a rant about empathy without mentioning them.
The first quote is — “It’s just business.”
I have always struggled with this philosophy. Business is not possible without people. People are the business, and those people—our customers, our prospects, our employees, are all subject to the trials and hardships of life. I understand that sometimes hard decisions must be made in the interest of either keeping the business alive or progressing the business forward—but we have all seen the flashy headlines of what happens when companies make these decisions without empathy. Let’s think of a more empathetic way to phrase this that doesn’t make people feel like they are disposable assets of the business.
The second quote is — “I just knew I couldn’t count on you.”
Anyone who throws this line around is spending too much time selfishly complaining about their own lives and responsibilities and not enough time internally reflecting on the why: why is that friend absent from events, why isn’t this working, and then what action can be taken to enable both of us to succeed? Even in the most empathetic environments, we don’t always know the battles being fought, the energy drained to do the basics, or the vitality some struggle to find every day. It’s a continuous exercise in developing and displaying empathy that will lead to trust, openness, understanding, and compromise. (A little kindness goes a long way too.)
Empathy can be hard for some; we can’t have a genuine conversation about empathy without acknowledging the amount of personal effort some folks have to put in to develop into empathic people. Likewise, some organizations don’t seem to be as focused on empathy as a foundational building block of culture as others. Let me end this week with some recommendations on how to increase your personal empathic behaviors. Keep in mind these recommendations are 100% useless if you are not being honest with yourself—think of each point below as a sliding scale increasing in complexity over time, not a box to check.
- Assess your current state. This is an important starting point. If feelings and emotions, in general, make you uncomfortable, or even if they don’t, this will take a lot of honesty, introspection, and realism to complete. It can seem paradoxical to turn inward to assess a capability that involves turning outward, but this will be an important baseline to refer to in later steps. You can also keep this step very personal to begin with; think back to an interaction with a close family member or friend and assess the empathy you demonstrated in that moment: how much time did you spend in that interaction actively listening and relating, compared to reacting, deflecting, and turning the conversation towards your interests, problems, or opinions?
- Validate with a trusted source. This could be where it gets awkward real fast. If you have gone through the process of assessing how empathetic you are—your own honest and genuine conclusion based on evidential experiences—validate those findings by talking to someone you trust. Ask them to assess how you were perceived in a particular situation where you felt you were showing empathy. They will either validate and you can continue in your personal empathy development, or they might share some honest perceptions that can be unsettling and cause you to return to step one above.
- Scenario-based internal practice. This one is low stress, low pressure, and can be done anytime and anywhere. Watching your favorite movie or television show? Put yourself in the shoes of the protagonist—or even the antagonist—and turn inwards to see how you feel being in their mind. Think about the last customer you interacted with, and based on what you know about them, think about what they are experiencing: their frustrations with your product or service added to the potential pressure for them to meet targets that your product is supposed to enable. The good news with scenario-based internal practice is you are not yet putting yourself in vulnerable positions—similar to how professional athletes visualize their performance before their execution, this process gives you a chance to visualize how you think and react without the vulnerability that comes with external practice.
- Scenario-based external practice. This is where practice becomes execution. You will fail here, and that’s okay to accept. Because this is also where some of the best human-to-human, person-to-person connections happen: where relationships are strengthened, where flaws become understood, where people can feel heard and understood, and where the value of our product or service becomes secondary to the unity and trust that we feel—unity and trust that most often lead to friendship and advocacy. This is where you show empathy.
- Let the empathy you feel drive action. People crave genuine interactions and the ability to be understood. We might not know what it’s like to be a child of war, or have our homes destroyed by natural disasters, but we can turn our thoughts and emotions outward to experience a very small fraction of what it would be like through empathy, which leads to the most important outcome of empathy—action. I would strongly argue that the most impactful outcome empathy can have in our lives is the ability to drive action: we reach out to that customer who we know just lost a family member to let them know we are thinking about them, or we understand the pressure and workload our boss is under and do anything we can to support them. Empathy drives action and while the development of empathy can be very personal, the impact of empathy can influence and unite an entire organization through these small and simple actions.
At some point, we will all get that call in the night and experience the worst day of our life. There are people you are talking to today who may have just received the worst news imaginable: the loss of a child, a best friend who is struggling with mental health, a wayward sister battling addiction—and in those moments, your products don’t matter anymore; they can’t help the situation. Only you can help by letting empathy drive your actions. Until next week.
Missed last week’s installment of Rants of a Customer Success Analyst? Go back and read! And keep an eye out for the next Reason, Rant, and Resolution next week.