The Empathy Advantage

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There I was. It was 2005, and I had just reopened my shop after a couple year hiatus. At the ripe old age of 25, I had injured my back to the point that I was never going to work on cars full time again. One of my earliest pivots was to get a business partner to help as a technician while I ran the business and advised service. Like many amateur partnerships, ours wasn’t thought out too much. We both loved working on cars and we went in fifty fifty. After a year, we had enough business to hire our first employee, a technician. 

Not long after, this technician came to us and said he had to leave work to go, “beat someone up.” Naturally we asked for a little more detail and he let us know that his wife’s sister had been roughed up by her boyfriend and this guy wasn’t going to stand for it. OK, let’s stop here for a minute and note a few things. Assaulting someone is never a good plan. Giving an employee any kind of nod-of-approval for such an act is equally a bad plan. My new business partner immediately took this stance, as was understandable, and told the technician no way. Some of you will agree with that. I gave it further consideration and came to a few more conclusions. This was personal, outside of work, and it was a family matter. This employee trusted us and was honest about what his intentions were, he could have lied and made up another reason to leave. Knowing this employee well enough, I knew that it didn’t matter whether or not we said yes or no, he was going to leave and do what he felt he needed to do. He was also the type to stay late or come in after hours to get things done so I knew we wouldn’t be behind on work unless he ended up in jail over this matter. My partner and I discussed it and I persuaded him to let our employee leave work for undisclosed personal reasons. He returned later in the day, said nothing, and worked extra hard to make sure all our promise times were met. If we had attempted to deny this leave of absence, he would have left anyways and when—or if—he returned, I am certain he would have held a grudge, felt guilty, or otherwise felt animosity or apathy towards his job which would easily have cost us money and time. 

So, how did it play out after? This ended up being the straw that broke the camel’s back with my business partner. This incident among others made me realize the partnership was flawed and I parted ways with him. After which the technician decided to stay and work for me. That incident was a one time thing and he ended up working loyally for me for 7 years, helping to grow my business. 

A traditional paradigm is to run your business like a boss. Tell people what to do, hold them to defined standards, and if they can’t or won’t do the job, discipline them or let them go, end of story. And it’s not necessarily wrong.  Another paradigm is run your business like a leader. Inspire, still tell people what to do, hold them to standards, but also understand where they’re coming from and occasionally take additional time to manage a person or situation. That “understanding where someone is coming from” is empathy. And it’s benefits can clearly be seen in your bottom line and stress level. Let’s talk about that.

The opposite of empathy would be apathy or not caring. Some people may be empathetic for their own personal or spiritual reasons, but I want to focus on the importance of empathy for business reasons. You could personally not care about a situation, but even the most basic empathy called,cognitive empathy, is a very useful skill in business. It’s used in negotiations, sales, management, and any situation involving another person. For this article, I’m focusing on the role of the business owner, but this skill for a service advisor is equally epic in raising your ARO. For example, you could be negotiating with a technician candidate. This guy might show up to the interview late and in a nervous fit and answer some of your questions hastily. You could assume he’ll show up late everyday and that he lacks confidence. Or you could dig in and find out he has a family to support (can be a big reason to turn hours), he’s nervous because he really wants to work at your shop, and he misjudged traffic in a part of town he’s not used to. 

Most often, I find empathy useful with existing staff. Issues have and always will come up. As owners, we have flexibility. It will always be up to us to draw the line but even the smallest concession based on a need of another can go a long way in terms of loyalty and dedication. With more and more discussion on the Millennial generation(and Gen Z, and all the rest), they do not want to be treated like a number. And in most cases, the staff we employ are more highly trained and harder to replace. If I ran a fast food joint, it would be easier to play hardball with low empathy, but that’s not the case for shop owners. But there is still that line to be drawn. And that’s up to you, ultimately.

This is what I would call an advanced concept. There is still a need to be an assertive leader and not give in too often. But that’s part of the misconception I see when I hear people talk about empathy. It’s not about being weak or giving in. It’s about taking the time and developing the talent to see and understand other people’s background. Where did they grow up? What challenges did they face or not face in life? What accomplishments are they proud of? The more you get to know, the more you can put yourself in their shoes. And if you can truly put yourself in their shoes, you’ll know what they want and need. This allows you to dial in whatever you are able to offer. Sometimes it’s a small as a single word choice that let’s them know you understand. Now maybe you can’t offer everything they want but one of the main reasons people like another person is if they feel listened to and understood. If I feel you understand and listen to me, I am going to work harder and longer for you even if I don’t get everything I want. And that’s the real takeaway here for business. Taking the time to listen, demonstrate that knowledge, and offer some concessions gets you, the business owner, something more valuable in return such as appreciation, loyalty, and harder work. And hopefully no one gets beat up in the process!

Employee turnover is rarely optimal. We have a shortage of skilled labor and the generations of that labor are changing. Take the time to learn this skill and you will see the benefits in your business many times over. If this is very new to you and you need a place to start, read Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. It’s a self-help classic. I sincerely hope every shop owner reading this is able to attract, build, and retain the most top-notch crew available in your city or town. Empathy is a piece of your success puzzle!


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