Empathy not apathy: the key to a successful business

Last year, the Harvard Business Review (HBR) wrote a compelling article on empathy entitled ‘Empathy is still lacking in the leaders who need it most’. One observation was that many companies have abandoned ‘rigid hierarchies and top-down command’ in favour of more collaborative working. This is something that, more often than not, is determined by the staff working at the company.

The millennial generation now demand empathy play a role in their work environment. As the HBR article correctly identifies – this cohort of workers now dominates the workplace and there is little room for a totalitarian senior management team.

As a result, a successful business today is one that has a collective capability to empathise. This isn’t just an inter-company capability; it’s one that has to run through everything the business does: sales, marketing, advertising and beyond.

So how can empathy filter into a few of these areas?


A sales person has to understand why they’re selling a product to a customer. They may know every single detail about the product, but if they don’t know why the customer might want or need it to solve a business problem, then they’re lacking vital information that could impact the on-going relationship with them.

This is where empathy comes in. A customer will have a problem they need to solve – that’s why as a sales person, you’re speaking with them. But to truly understand their requirements, you need to feel their pain – whatever keeps them awake at night, should keep you up as well, just out of principle.

If you’re living their nightmare, you’ll be in a better position to build a strong, long-term relationship with them.



If you just take one ingredient of marketing, such as direct email to market to existing and prospective customers; you can see the importance of empathy.

Email marketing, just like empathy, is something that has to be personal. For prospective customers, there is little point sending out ‘blanket emails’ hoping that they’ll read it, reply and convert. With empathy, you have to be considerate of the individual in question and what their personal business problem, gripe or frustration is.

Email marketing software company, Get Response, found that 42 per cent of marketers send the same message to their entire database. When you’re working with different customers, in different sectors, with different wants and needs – sending generic email content out to everyone, unchanged, won’t just result in poor cut through; it will also imply that you’re apathetic towards your customer base.


The best advertising campaigns ever created are those that play on the emotions of the target audience. Adverts that are emotive, inspirational, engaging and thought provoking will play well to the intended audience.

So many successful ad campaigns are empathetic. They acknowledge consumer worry, but offer reassurance as the solution. John Lewis’ Man on the Moon advert from Christmas 2015 played on the worry of loneliness but ended with a message of hope and collective spirit.

Empathy in business is fast-becoming a necessity. Customers today expect a personal rapport with the business they’re communicating with and a much higher level of consideration for the ‘wants and needs’ they have.

This doesn’t just mean knowing their name; it means being able to talk to them with pre-existing knowledge about what makes them tick. Empathy involves talking with your customers not at them.

A business that actively empathises with its customers is a business that will build customer loyalty and satisfaction. We know that relationships will always be complicated, but a ‘business’ that dictates, like the boardroom exec of old, is a ‘business’ that will see its customer base continue to churn.