The New York Times Business Section's weekly interview this past Saturday was with Dev Patnaik, a consultant and author of Wired To Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy. As that subheadline indicates, his idea is for companies to cultivate an atmosphere in which employees can feel a sense of empathy--a sense of "stepping outside of your company and getting your entire organization to get a sense of what the outside world thinks and feels, as opposed to just what those inside your organization think and feel." In this way he argues, companies can better match their products and services with their customers.
Patnaik argues that, with a few exceptions--he cites JetBlue, I.B.M., and Nike, among a few others--American companies have lost a step in the empathy department, and have found themselves "trying to get the customers to identify with their product rather than getting their own employees to identify with their customers."
Patnaik's thinking sounds sensible, but it's clear that--at least in the interview--he's talking mainly about big companies, where the number of employees is so vast and a typical worker is so insulated from a typical customer, making empathy an especially tall order. What he doesn't note--and what we will, if he doesn't mind--is that small businesses have a built-in advantage as far as empathy is concerned. If managed correctly, smallness leads to greater interaction and subsequent identification with the customer.
In one sense, the customer and the company lie on opposite ends of the commercial dividing line; but in another sense, the customer and the small business sit on the same side, with the big guys on the other. The trick of empathy for the small business, then, would seem to be to move its culture one where the former paradigm reigns to one where the latter does.
From a business perspective, there are enough disadvantages to being small as compared to being big. It sure would be silly for you not to exploit your advantages, no? Ensuring a healthy sense of empathy seems like a prime way to do so.
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