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How to Weave Humanity Into Your Business Model

The Secrets Behind Warby Parker and Mercedes Benz’s Ability to Empathize

In Uganda, women entrepreneurs often experience a vicious no-win cycle. They take out loans with such high rates, short cycles for repayment, and late fee penalties that no matter how hard they work, they really never get ahead. Now, that’s beginning to change: The Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Programme decided to give women entrepreneurs a chance by giving qualifying women an extended grace period for repayment, and improved loan terms based on how long the business has generated an income. Women who repay their loan within the first twelve months pay no interest.

When we are vulnerable, we need understanding and empathy. We seek a human response. Companies that would make your mom proud are designed to deliberate warm and caring responses to their customers’ most vulnerable moments.

Build Empathetic Actions Into Your Operating Model

For example, when Mercedes Benz learns that a lessee of one of their vehicles has died, families receive assistance that says, “We know this is a tough time. We want to help.” Bereaved family members receive a condolence letter and a leather journal and pen to help record all of the tasks ahead. And then they offer grace: Mercedes offers families a ten-day time period to return the vehicle, in which all fees are suspended. Alternatively, the family can continue the lease, transferring it to a qualifying family member. They waive all transfer fees.

Successful companies that would make any mom proud, proactively design responses that deliver empathy and care. These are actions and processes that become embedded in how the company does business. It’s how they weave humanity into their operating model.

This is our opportunity to choose to build empathetic actions into our operating model, to wire in acts of kindness and humanity, and to have knowledge of customer frailties (leading to new and innovative products and services). Companies who design their businesses around their customers’ moments of need don’t rely only on the frontline reps to soothe customers — they listen across the entire organization for these opportunities, and then build out new policies, systems, and practices to be there when customers are vulnerable and in need.

Design In Opportunities For Empathy and Care

Every company and industry faces unique challenges when it comes to designing their practices around customer needs. Wholesome Wave is a company who spotted vulnerable customers in the healthcare industry: They’ve created a national network to enable doctors to write fruit and vegetable prescriptions to people on strict budgets who can’t buy food that is good for them. They have partnered with over 1,400 farmers, markets, grocery stores who redeem these “produce prescriptions.” helping these folks greatly reduce their risk for diet-related diseases such as obesity, hypertension, or type-2 diabetes.

What are the moments when your mom is vulnerable? Can you design in empathy and care to take care of her then? Can you identify the opportunities across your customer journey where you can stand out by stepping up? When can you offer an extension of what your company stands for by operating differently?

The More Grace And Empathy You Give, the More You’ll Receive

Warby Parker is a business that was inspired by a desire to do business differently. And that was to offer good glasses at a reasonable price — to provide an alternative from an industry dominated by very few manufacturers dictating quality and pricing.

The founders describe how one of them lost his glasses on a backpacking trip and, rather than spend big for a replacement pair, squinted his way through his first semester of grad school. Who among us hasn’t foregone something we need at one time or another because of cost? These four guys started this company because they believe that “everyone has the right to see.” And they believe glasses should not feel like a chore — but easy and even fun.

Here’s how Warby Parker earns their place by offering grace. They want you to wear their glasses for thirty days. And any time during that period, even if you sit on them (well, because those things happen), they will take care of you. No questions, no judgment, and no giggles.

The first ground rule at Warby Parker is “treat customers the way you’d want to be treated”. When you call them, with those crumpled up glasses in your hand, or for any other reason, a human being answers your call within six seconds. They are a company of people with common values and a series of rituals that fuse them together (such as receiving a copy of Kerouac’s “Dharma Bums,” whose early characters were names Warby Pepper and Zagg Parker). So you are always greeted with someone happy to be on that phone with you — because they work for a company whose values let them take selfless actions that put others before themselves: actions which help them to grow their business.

Through a culture and operation built on value, trust and personality, the number one driver of sales for Warby Parker is word-of-mouth. Their Net Promoter Score is near 84 — eclipsing other optical retailers performing in single digits. They have grown to an estimated valuation exceeding 1.2 billion. US sales are projected to increase 20% in 2017, on top of a 28% growth in 2016, according to market research firm 1010data. When other retailers are closing stores, they are opening 25.

To make mom even more proud, they donate one pair of glasses to a person in need for every pair that they sell — perhaps to someone who also has been squinting their way through life.

This shows the more grace and empathy you give, the more you’ll receive. And the more your employees will love working for a company that extends grace because it’s the right thing to do.

Adapted from Would You Do That To Your Mother? The “Make Mom Proud” Standard for How to Treat Your Customers by Jeanne Bliss with permission of Portfolio, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © Jeanne Bliss, 2018.

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