Because of the fumes.
Let me explain:
Just before the wedding, my bride-to-be had everything under control. The flowers were set, the caterer was prepared, the ceremony site was ready. She was as calm as a bride can be. But then a friend of my parents asked what should have been an innocuous question:
"What are you doing for wedding favors?"
Wedding favors? Now to me, "wedding favors" was as foreign a concept as "centerpieces" and, well, "marriage." Turns out "wedding favors" are defined (by Wikipedia) as "small gifts given as a gesture of appreciation or gratitude to guests from the bride and groom during a wedding ceremony or a wedding reception." Who knew?
Alarm bells replaced wedding bells! This was a crisis of the first degree! Fortunately, the inquiring family friend was quick to provide a suggestion: small silver picture frames in which we could place cards telling each guest where they'd sit at the reception. Then they could take their frames home and toss the seat cards and replace them with pictures of their cats, or whatever. (This was 12 years ago, before there were blogs.) Brilliant!
My fiancée sped to the local Christmas Tree Shops, a New England bargain store that specializes in little knickknacks. Amazingly, Heidi found a bunch of little frames similar to the one in the cheesy picture above. She immediately bought 150 of them and brought them back to me. My job was to do the desktop publishing: make nice calligraphic seat cards with each guest's name and table number. That job was hard enough. My brother's job was much worse.
He had to do the stickers.
You see, every single one of these little silver frames had a silver UPC sticker on it. Not so much on the frame, though. On the glass! And the glue on these stickers must have been that kind of glue they use for keeping those tiles from falling off the Space Shuttle. The stickers themselves fell apart if you tried to scrape or pick them off.
Since he was best man, Bill's job was to remove the stickers. The only hope was to use some high-powered chemical solvent and a razor blade, which is what Bill did for hours in the underventilated living room of my apartment. Twelve years later, he's still not the same. (Actually, he's fine, though he lives in Oklahoma, which is odd.) (His living there; not the state itself.)
Anyway, this brings me to my point: the frame-maker forgot about empathy. Someone at Cheapo Frames Unlimited or whatever made a decision to put bar-code stickers on the glass part of the frame. Maybe he or she did it because the store would need to scan the stickers at the cash register. Maybe it helped with inventory control. But I guarantee you that the sticker decision-maker lacked the critical character trait of empathy — namely, empathy with the customer who was going to be using the cheapo frame. He or she never stopped to think how the customer would feel when confronted with the unremovable sticker. He or she never wondered how the customer would be able to see the wedding guest's table number (or how the guest would later see the cat picture) through the permanent label that obscured the frame's transparent glass face. The frame-company decision maker had no empathy for the customer.
And neither did his or her supervisors. Neither did the owner of Cheapo Frames Unlimited. Neither did the buyer at Christmas Tree Shops.
Having empathy for the customer — or the end user of a product or service — is an undervalued, underpromoted, and undertrained quality in today's business world. Here are some examples where empathy for the customer or end user is missing:
- The people who package children's toys. In their quest to thwart the one or two percent of toy-store customers who would steal accessories out of a Dora the Explorer package, or whatever, they tie everything down with wire, then tape it to the inside of the box. It takes twenty minutes to free your kid's toy from its package. The manufacturer didn't think about how unhappy that delay would make the child, or her dad.
- Customer support lines that play recorded advertisements for the product you're having trouble with while you wait 31 minutes for a live human being. My particular favorite is when you call your internet provider because you can't connect, and the recording tells you that you can get answers to your questions at www.whatever.com. Uh, no I can't ... The company never thought about how that would sound to a frustrated customer.
- Billboards that have the same tiny little text at the bottom that a print ad has. I'm driving 60 miles an hour past your billboard; how am I supposed to read the little text? Obviously, the art designer didn't think about the driver's ability to actually read it (or didn't care if it was read).
- Lawyers who fill their letters, contracts, and briefs with pompous and stuffy legalese. Don't they want the reader to actually be able to read it?
- For that matter, lawyers who bill by the hour. Don't they wonder how the client is going to feel when she gets a bill showing that it cost her more money because it took longer for her to get what she wanted?
Managers need to make sure that everyone in the workplace thinks about what the customer is going to do with the product or service, and how the customer is going to feel about it. That's empathy, and it's critical to a company's success.
Seth Godin has written about this before in his excellent blog. See his post from three years ago called, simply, "Care." And Becky Carroll at Customers Rock! blog has a nice post on empathy called "Empathy Matters."
As for the wedding favors, they were a hit at the reception, Heidi and I are still married 12 years later, and Bill's only a little woozy from the solvent fumes.