Empathy in Leadership – Why every leader needs a customer service stint?

Empathy in leadership cover image

“Leadership is about empathy. It is about having the ability to relate to and connect with people for the purpose of inspiring and empowering their lives” – Oprah Winfrey

Empathy, compassion, listening with patience, the willingness to express gratitude and accept mistakes are some of the soft skills that leaders need to lead happy teams.

Jerks cannot be good leaders. People management is about people. You cannot excel at people management if you lack empathy and compassion.

Compassion and empathy in leadership is non-negotiable.

Leadership is not so much about technique and methods as it is about opening the heart. Leadership is about inspiration – of oneself and of others. Great leadership is about human experiences, not processes. Leadership is not a formula or a program, it is a human activity that comes from the heart and considers the hearts of others. It is an attitude, not a routine.

Lance Secretan, Author & Management Consultant

In the popular TV series Suits, Jessica Pearson, struggling to select her successor at the law firm, asks her ex-boss: “What do you do if a leader lacks compassion?” Pat comes the reply:

empathy and compassion in leadership
Empathy in Leadership

I love the suggestion. However, how do you go about “shoving down compassion a man’s throat”?

There is a more humane way of accomplishing this – depute the person in a customer facing job role.

A customer service job is a humbling experience.

What do you learn working in customer service?

You learn to answer difficult questions

Sales may overcommit, product teams may under-deliver. The barrage of nasty questions are directed to the poor customer service rep.

From late deliveries, product defects to bad packaging – the customer service rep has to answer one and all. The rep is expected to weather such storms wearing a calm, smiling face.

This is however a critical learning for the rep.

  • Take ownership of a mistake, irrespective of who created the mess
  • Be calm and listen with patience to get to the root of the problem
  • Most important, solve the mess
Customer Support Comic Strip by Rudy Park

You learn to ask the right questions

I put this right at the top of the list. The key to problem solving and providing solutions is the ability to ask the right questions.

As a manager, when presented with a problem or question, do not jump to provide a solution. Help your team reach the solution and solve the problem themselves. Your questions need to work as hints. Similar to hints we use to solve puzzles. Even though you may know the answer right away, refrain from giving it to your team. Ask questions one by one and lead them to the solution.

Here is the link to my article on the three skills for effective management.

In a customer facing job role, we have to probe to get to the root of a problem. This requires active listening and asking the right questions.

You cannot solve a problem if you cannot get to the exact cause of the problem. How do you know if you are hammering the right nail?

Comic strip – Lake County Record-Bee

You learn apology and gratitude

When trying to diffuse the tension while serving an angry customer, a sincere apology is the best start. The probing and listening come later.

No matter who is at fault. An angry customer expects you to apologize for her inconvenience. Nothing trains you better at apology than a customer service job role.

Why is apology good for a leader?

According to this article in the Journal of Business Ethics, apologizing to your team has several positive effects.

  • Leaders who apologize to their teams have significantly higher well-being and job satisfaction than those leaders who do not apologize
  • Apologizing as a leader also resulted in higher levels of pride and self-worth in their work

A leader is considered strong if he has the ability to accept a mistake, understand the impact of the decision and demonstrate to the team how to change course to correct the mistake.

Similar to a sincere apology, saying “Thank you” too makes a huge difference in customer service as well as in people management.

Gratitude is a way to show people their worth and contribution.

“If you can’t reward, then you should thank.” – Arabic proverb

I’ve had my share of customer service job roles – acknowledging late deliveries, fixing internet connections, apologizing for lost passwords. When I look back at my formative years as a working professional, I believe the customer service experience has served me well.

Putting in my two cents’ worth for all aspiring leaders and managers – get yourself a stint in customer service.

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”

– Leo Buscaglia, Motivational Speaker & Writer

By Nitesh Verma

Founder - Business Management Blog. I am an independent business strategy consultant, helping companies take data driven business decisions. My mission is to find and implement simple solutions for complex business problems.

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