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Empathy As a Way Of Doing Business

I found myself in a well-known grocery store late one night just before closing time. I arrived at the checkout till just as an old man was finalizing his purchases. He seemed aware and agitated at my arrival, as I started taking items out of my basket.

The checkout clerk was having some issues scanning his last item. She irritatedly called out to her manager who was standing on the other side of the store, “Mike, I need a price check on these men’s diapers!” The old man seemed shocked at her comment. I cringed, for him and at the thought of anyone needing adult diapers.

I could hear the young couple behind me giggle as only ignorant and insensitive teenagers can. As is usually the case in public humiliation – the line of people waiting had increased from being just me to being 5 different groups of shoppers. It’s probably because there was only one till open at 11pm. One of the guys behind me loudly asked to no one in particular, “What the hell is taking this old guy so long?”

The old man noticed the line and lowered his head in shame. At this point the manager returned and tried to assist the checkout clerk with scanning the diapers since “There aren’t any men’s diapers left on the shelf.” The diaper packaging was being held up overhead as they were trying to read and stretch the barcode. “Ok ok, no no no, I’m going now.” The whole store now had a front-row seat to the play by play hell of an old man’s pride being bulldozed. We could also tell you what size and style of adult diapers he wears. With his head hanging in embarrassment and shame he walked forlornly away from the checkout till towards the door, leaving his other groceries and credit card behind.

The manager and clerk started calling after him, “Sir your bags are here, Sir please come fetch your credit card!” They were completely oblivious to the fact that they had contributed to absolutely demolishing an old man’s pride in front of a bunch of strangers. The clerk then turned to me and said, “Can you believe that guy?”

“Are you blind?” I angrily told her to charge his card, grabbed his items and walked outside the store to find him standing in the dimly lit parking lot, a tear rolling down his cheek. He had come to the store just before closing in order to avoid any crowds and was deeply embarrassed about needing adult diapers.

I handed him his parcels, including his diapers and he said thank you. This man was someone’s grandfather, someone’s husband, he survived a war, people respected him, he respected himself. He had probably contributed more to the world than all of us in the checkout line behind him. He was just getting old.

Why has empathy become such a missing ingredient in most people’s communication and the way we do business? Why couldn’t the checkout clerk notice what this man was buying and consider for a second how he was feeling? As opposed to being eager to leave work. Why couldn’t she walk over to her manager instead of shouting out the product name and problem? Why couldn’t the diaper brand in question create more subtle packaging or provide a nondescript plastic bag (with external barcode) in the aisle for anyone taking their product off the shelf? Why couldn’t the manager quietly have found another solution to the man’s badly scanning product? Perhaps even open another checkout till? Why weren’t they noticing his shame and embarrassment?

We’ve become such a narcissistic culture complete with our Instagram selfies and Facebook updates about our awesomeness that we often forget about others, we forget the power of empathy. Do we apply customer empathy strategies in our business as much as we apply cost-saving strategies? Now, more than ever, the ability to have empathy in how you communicate and conduct yourself as a person and business provides an amazing competitive advantage. Just do it, just f$*king care.