Training your employees on Sympathy or Empathy? Apple shows the way to success

by Colin Shaw on October 17, 2012

Have you taught your employees about the “Power of Empathy”? Do they make the difference between “empathy” and “sympathy”?

We came recently across the Apple’s Genius Training Manual which puts a lot of emphasis on “empathy”. There is a special program on the course called “The Power of Empathy”. The manual insists employees should approach customer interaction with empathy not sympathy in bold type.

A friend of ours, Michael Hill from also recently wrote in a newsletter that the key to handling customer complaints is “empathy” not “sympathy”. That prompted us to look at the differences and why people insist so much is empathy, not sympathy.

Empathy is the power of understanding and imaginatively entering into another person’s feelings. It requires capacity to recognize the other person’s feelings. It comes from the Greek empatheia i.e. affection, passion.

Sympathy on the other side is sharing the feelings of another. In many cases it has the notion of feeling or an expression of pity or sorrow for the distress of another; compassion or commiseration. Also could be interpreted as “harmonious agreement”; “accord” e.g. “He is in sympathy with their beliefs”.

As Apple puts it simply, they want their Geniuses to be empathetic and “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes,” not sympathetic, “which is the ability to feel sorry for someone.” They don’t want their employees to feel the same feelings as their customers or to agree with those, they want their employees to recognise the emotions their customers feel and change those, make them feel better – e.g. happy, cared for, valued etc. One of the approaches to do that as the manual advises is by employing the “Three Fs: Feel, Felt, and Found. This works especially well when the customer is mistaken or has bad information.”

For example:

Customer: This Mac is just too expensive.

Genius: I can see how you’d feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it’s a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.(Emphasis added)

The manoeuvre is brilliant. The Genius has switched places with the customer. He is she and she is he, and maybe that laptop isn’t too expensive after all. He Found it wasn’t, at least.

Some argue that the emotional intelligence is even more important than IQ (see Daniel Coleman “Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More Than IQ”). Whether you agree with this or not, the fact is; Apple has more sales per square foot in the US (and possibly the world) than any other retailer. I have no doubts that the fact that they spend so much time on training people to understand customers’ emotions (i.e. being empathetic) has contributed to that. As Prof Raj Raghunathan from the University of Texas puts it; “We are ruled by our emotions first, and then we build justifications for our response. We want to be considered scientific and rational, so we come up with reasons after the fact to justify our choice”.

Complaint handling requires empathy (not sympathy), consideration of the available evidence and the balance of probabilities but, ultimately, should be based on a foundation of demonstrating that an organisation can be trusted to act fairly and reasonably when handling customers problems and complaints.

The Power of Empathy.”; He also “Takes Ownership” “Empathetically,”

Zhecho Dobrev is a consultant and project manager for Beyond Philosophy. He has worked with a wide array of large corporate companies. Zhecho’s expertise includes customer behaviour analytics, customer loyalty, complaints management and journey mapping. He holds an MBA and Master’s degree in International Relations.

Zhecho Dobrev on Twitter @Zhecho_BeyondP
Colin ShawTraining your employees on Sympathy or Empathy? Apple shows the way to success