Social media and the end of empathy


By Mark Schaefer

Why am I using a picture of a bass on a blog post about social media and business? Seems a little fishy doesn’t it? Well I didn’t use this for the halibut.  There is a very relevant story with a lot of marketing mussel. A story on a grand scale, you might say.

When I was a young sales guy I learned a very important lesson about customer relationships and empathy from a fishing trip.

My company was struggling through a massive quality issue that was threatening my customer to the point that it was shutting down their production lines … and THEIR customers’ production lines.  In business terms, this was an apocalyptic problem and it eventually resulted in the largest quality claim in the history of my company.

Nerves were beyond frayed.  I remember spending one Labor Day weekend sorting through reams of lot numbers in search of alternatives that might work. We couldn’t find any and I was forced to make an excruciating call. I had to tell a plant manager that every lot of our material in his plant, every lot in transit, and every lot in our inventory was defective. We were going to shut his plant down, maybe for weeks.

Months before, this customer and I had become good friends on a company-sponsored fishing event. Yes, businesses used to do that kind of thing. Believe me, when you spend eight hours in a bass boat with one guy, you get to know him pretty well!  We had shared a lot of our life stories and created a great memory on this trip.

As I made the phone call and delivered the news, I held my breath.  There was shocked silence at the other end of the phone. Finally, my customer said, “Schaefer, the next time we’re in a fishing boat together I’m going to toss you out!”

He was able to use our shared experience and friendship to break the tension and tell me in an empathetic and humorous way that he knew it wasn’t my fault and that we would get through this crisis together.

The days of conducting business based on these deep relationships is largely over I think — relationships that were built on a golf course, a boat, long dinner conversations — not text messages, online help functions, and customer service tweets.

Ten years ago, if you had a business crisis, you could probably count on those deep relationships to help pull you through, at least to a certain extent. Today, and especially after the recession, people just don’t have time for relationship-building.  I can’t imagine inviting a customer to a weekend of golfing any more.  Everybody is doing what used to be three jobs. Who has the time for building business friendships?

I wonder about the long-term implications for business when relationships are negotiated through spreadsheets and emails. I have an image in my mind of that United Airlines commercial where a businessman laments losing a customer because they never saw them. He proceeded to hand out airline tickets for customer locations.

Maybe there will be backlash and a re-focusing on deep relationships at some point.  There was recently a story about tech start-ups scrambling for office space near Twitter because of the live networking opportunities. Kind of ironic. Seeking deeper offline relationships with people dedicated to spreading low-impact online relationships.

A business relationship renaissance.  Could that be a competitive advantage for you?  Or, is the age of empathy over?

Keynote speaker Mark SchaeferMark Schaefer is the chief blogger for this site, executive director of Schaefer Marketing Solutions, and the author of several best-selling digital marketing books. He is an acclaimed keynote speaker, college educator, and business consultant.  The Marketing Companion podcast is among the top business podcasts in the world.  Contact Mark to have him speak to your company event or conference soon.

Photo courtesy

All posts

The Marketing Companion Podcast

Why not tune into the world’s most entertaining marketing podcast!

View details

Let's plot a strategy together

Want to solve big marketing problems for a little bit of money? Sign up for an hour of Mark’s time and put your business on the fast-track.

View details

Share via