When the rubber soles of shoes make their first squeaky contact with the linoleum of a retail floor, the customer is braced for impact. Whether it’s a jarring greeting or utter ignorance, that first interaction between customer and employee sets the tone for the remainder of their exchange with the store. Those introductions can take a whole spectrum of forms—judgement, silence, enthusiasm—but what every customer wants from that interaction is the same: empathy.
From the moment they enter a retailer until the minute they leave, each and every customer seeks adaptable empathy from the employees. They want to be treated as humans, they want their unique emotions to be recognized, and they want their service to be attuned to their own attitudes and desires. They want intelligent empathy—and that’s why it’s the most important soft skill you can vest in your employees.
Like “authenticity,” empathy is a buzz word that’s veering toward triteness, but that makes the sentiment behind it or the value of it as an attribute no less valid. Its definition is the foundation of good retail: “the ability to understand and share the feelings of another.” When it’s present in retail, empathy builds relationships between customers and employees by offering an authentic connection based not on a sale, but on satisfying a want or need with astuteness and awareness. With empathy, retail ascends beyond the exchange of money for goods, becoming a memorable and feel-good moment of reciprocity between two engaged parties. It’s empathy that turns customers into fans, and it’s empathy that turns your employees into experts.
In retail, being empathetic doesn’t just mean being kind or charismatic (though those soft skills certainly matter, too). It means reading the customer before you and adapting your actions, attitude, and interactions to their body language, words, and implications. It means treating a customer who’s on an enthusiastic hunt for a specific product totally differently from a customer who only nods in response to your greeting; with one, you’ll heartily support their search and engage them in conversation about the product; with the other, you’ll remain quietly attentive until the customer engages with you. And in both scenarios, it’s your reaction—your empathy—that will leave the customer not just satisfied, but thoroughly pleased with the tenor and service of your interaction. Being empathetic means being attuned to each customer on an entirely individual basis and adapting your interactions to fulfill their implied fancies.
Empathy is the most valuable of soft skills because it’s versatile and entirely malleable. It’s not a blanket skill that’s applied blindly to every customer, like product knowledge or even an energetic personality. It takes the form of the customer before the employee, and can therefore make every customer feel personally acknowledged. It accomplishes so many different actions with its subtleties and savviness. Empathy appeals to both the grump and the enthusiast because it adapts itself to them both.
Unfortunately, empathy’s nuance also makes it a soft skill that can be difficult to teach and learn. It’s not a training that can be easily directed and quickly applied; you can’t learn it from a video series and your employees can’t memorize it. Empathy has to be studied and practiced; it requires direction and guidance. And that’s why it’s important for you as a manager or owner to thoroughly understand and support empathy: it’s your responsibility to impart it, constantly and vigilantly, in your employees.
First, define empathy (we’ve done that for you above). Consider what it truly means, how it differs from other common sentiments like kindness or sympathy, and what true empathy looks like in your business. Remember the times in your past when you’ve experienced empathy in other retailers, and compare that to what your store offers your customers. What’s it feel like to connect authentically with a retail employee: how did their actions and questions reflect your own perspectives? How did they adapt their reactions to your responses? Did you leave with the product that fulfilled your needs, and more importantly, did you reflect back positively on your experience? Did you suggest that retailer to your friends, and did you return in the future?
Now consider that experience in light of your own business and how you could replicate it. Is it the kind of experience you’re offering your customers? How could you encourage your employees to do the same? What are the personal ticks and nuances your employees should watch for in every customer to ensure they react with empathy? How do you incorporate empathy training into your regular trainings?
Once you understand empathy in retail, you can begin to incorporate it into your own practices. With this most valuable of soft skills in your arsenal, you’ll begin to notice a shift: your employees will be more effective and your customers will be happier, and that symbiotic partnership will result in our greatest goal: more profits.