A WORD THAT I AM HEARING on an ever increasing basis in training meetings is ’empathy’. To my great delight, a rising number of team leaders are recognising that one of the key skills needed to build lasting relationships in business is the ability to show that you genuinely care about clients. By ‘putting yourself in the client’s shoes’, you can replace the commonplace and therefore ’empty words’ that customers so often hear, with phrases that create a real feeling of understanding and caring.
What better time to write about expressions of caring than in the same month as Valentine’s Day? All over the world, nervous men spent the days leading up to February 14th in a state of near panic, desperately thinking of a gift that would successfully demonstrate the depth of love they had for their partners. Not that women don’t face the problem of choosing Valentine’s gifts too. However, I am yet to hear or see a man banging pots around the kitchen or storming out of a restaurant because the gift his lady friend bought did not meet his expectations.
With this in mind, in the run up to February 14th I threw myself into some exhaustive research to see what our ‘significant others’ had set their hearts on receiving. By exhaustive I mean that I asked the girls in the office and sent out an open question on Weibo.
I expected the answers to range from small, cute presents, to gifts that Bill Gates would have to take out a bank loan to bring home. Instead, the answers that came back focused very much on small gifts that demonstrated real thought. My investigations showed that, (and I am willing to acknowledge that some answers may not truly reflect what those girls questioned were thinking) rather than a ridiculously expensive dinner at the best restaurant in Beijing/ Shanghai etc. men may get a better reaction from a budget friendly return to the restaurant where they first shared a meal with the love of their life. (note to men; in this case do make sure that the love of your life is actually your current partner. Heading off to MacDonald’s and then mentioning over your chicken nuggets that you used to come here with your ex-girlfriend may present certain dangers to your health.)
Of the 23 replies, (all from women, as the guys were too busy with last minute Taobao browsing) all but one girl focused on items that were small, personal and showed real thought on the part of the sender. In defense of the one girl who was thinking big, a wedding in Las Vegas sounds pretty good to me too!
So there we go. Money can’t buy you love… most of the time. (I add that as I think we all agree that if Rupert Murdoch and Donald Trump drove taxis for a living rather than running huge business empires, they may well still be single.)
We all like to think that we are special and that someone genuinely cares about us. In this, romantic relationships and client relations are exactly the same. Empathy, the skill of understanding the needs and feeling of others and then acting in a way that demonstrates this awareness is equally applicable to romance and business.
A number of companies that I have come across over the years tended towards standardized sentences at the beginning of emails. The aim was to build rapport with the recipient immediately. Unfortunately, when used indiscriminately and with no consideration for the content of the email, they show a total lack of caring. For example:
– Merry Christmas from all of us at ABC Limited
We regret to inform you that your job application has been unsuccessful.
– Greetings from ABC
Our records show that you still have not paid for orders 1, 2 and 3 If we do not receive payment within two weeks, we shall be forced to put the matter into the hands of our legal department.
– Dear Valued Customer (no need to continue the email here. As soon as the reader sees this they instantly know that they are looking at a message that has simultaneously been sent to 5,000 others. If ever there was a phrase that screams ‘lack of empathy’ this is it.)
It is vital that we match the tone of the email or conversation to the message or feelings involved from start to finish. The secret to building relationships is to be (or at least sound like you are) sincere. For those of you wondering about the title of this month’s blog, worry no more, as I shall reveal its meaning to you now.
A great many websites state that the word sincere comes from Latin. The origin of the word is either ‘sincerus’ meaning pure or clean, or from two words ‘sine’ meaning without, and ‘cera’ meaning wax. The idea being that marble traders would often smear wax on the cracks in blocks of marble to disguise the imperfections. Thus, ‘sine cera’ (without wax) suggested true and perfect. There are also websites that disagree with this theory, but I am going to ignore them as it is a nice story.
Insincere comments such as generic compliments or statements not supported by fact are a sure-fire way to alienate your clients. In China, where the emphasis is on showing respect and avoiding impolite or pushy language, we see many such phrases. Whilst the intent of these statements may be well-intentioned, the effect can often be one of causing suspicion in the reader or listener.
Years ago, an English teacher friend of mine turned to me and said ‘I have never been so good looking as I am in China!’ The reason for this was that many of his students would say things like ‘We like your class. You are very good looking/ handsome’. Now my friend was a realist and only too aware that he was no Brad Pitt or George Clooney. He also understood that his students were just trying to be nice. However, it did have the effect of limiting how seriously he could take their general conversation and opinions.
Just throwing out words is not enough. We need to think about their impact on the listener/ reader. The best way to do this is to imagine how we would feel in their situation, what we would want to hear and why.
Let’s imagine that your child is sick. You, as a good parent, want only the best treatment for him/ her. Would you rather receive a letter from the hospital that says:
Dear Mrs Jones,
Your child’s appointment has been set for 9 am on the 19th of Feb. Please attend promptly and make sure that your child does not eat anything within 8 hours of the appointment.
Or, would you like to open up your email and see this message?
Dear Mrs Jones,
We have arranged for your son James to see Dr Yang at 9 am on the 19th of February. We chose Dr. Yang as he is regarded as the leading medical professional in his field here in Beijing and also because he speaks fluent English after working for 7 years in your home town of New York.
The scan which Dr Yang will perform is a standard procedure and James will be able to go straight home with you afterwards. We do ask that James avoids eating for 8 hours before the operation as we need his stomach to be empty in order for us to see the clearest results.
I will meet you at the entrance to our clinic and go to the examination room with you.
I look forward to seeing both James and you on Thursday 19th.
If you have any other questions concerning James’ treatment or any other matters, please feel free to contact me.
Now, I am a father and I know which version I would prefer. The first version shows no caring or consideration. It is simply a ‘matter of fact’ statement. the message has not been personalised at all. In the second version we can see a lot of care has been put into addressing the mother’s fears. Instead of ‘child’ we see her son’s name instead. This shows he is not just ‘a patient’ but a real person.
We see details about the Doctor’s skills. I don’t know about you, but when my son is sick, I want to know that the doctor treating him is the best in the world, can bring the dead back to life and invented the machines and instruments which he plans to use on my boy!
Finally, we see that the mother will be escorted to the treatment room as soon as she arrives. This suggests that she and her son will be in safe hands. In short, the writer (me, as it is a fictional letter) has taken the time to consider the fears of the mother and written in a style designed to allay those concerns.
In particular when writing to a client (as a written message lacks the tone of oral communication) look at the email and think about how you would feel if you received it. Does it address your concerns? Does it show that the writer has really listened to you? Does it read like the other 50 emails you will get today, or does it show that to the writer you are an individual and that they know exactly how you feel.
Are you concentrating? Good, because I don’t want to say this twice. The key to being able to be sincere and to show empathy is… LISTENING!!
If you were listening in January this year when your partner mentioned that they liked the painting in the window of that shop near San Li Tun, then the chances are that on February 14th you watched as your better half’s face lit up as she opened the carefully wrapped picture.
Likewise, if you were listening at that networking event back in August last year when the potential client mentioned how much they like American Football and followed the New York Giants, then you will have been able to send a brief non-business, congratulations email to them after New York won the Super Bowl. By doing so, you will have strengthened the relationship far more than 100 “Dear Valuable Customer” emails.
You could, of course, avoid listening and make your life much more simple. It would be simple as you would be single and your daily job would not be too full up with clients, as they would be away doing business with the listeners.
Listen to people to find out what their worries, wants and needs are. Be genuine in your desire to please them and sincere in any compliment of message that you send. Tailor you message to them and them alone.
Twenty two out of twenty three Chinese women cannot be wrong! It is the thought that counts. Show that you care. Show that you understand… and please, please, please do it… ‘without wax’.