Weaponized Empathy

  • Jeff Gibbard
  • 9 min read

As humans, we are, presumably, always in the process of improvement.

We seek to grow individually and collectively. We look for ways to enhance and optimize our material conditions in the home, in the corporation, in the state.

However, we cannot always agree on what represents an improvement.

In many cases, by improving in one area, we cause harm in another. We find ourselves routinely asking “do the ends justify the means?”

Today, I want to interrogate what it means to improve in business by looking at a single, frequently-employed tactic. My hope is that by looking at this symptom, we are able to reveal the more significant condition it represents, and possibly present some methods to remedy what ails us.

I’m willing to bet you can relate to this story.

*Ding*

The text message arrived to inform me that my bill had increased…by nearly 60%.

I was upset. I was confused. Maybe more than anything, I was annoyed that I’d need to take time out of my day to deal with this.

I wondered, should I call customer service or try to resolve this via live chat?

I opted for live chat.

“No Worries”

“It is nice to meet you here in chat.”

“I’d be concerned too if I were in your shoes.”

“The pleasure is mine”

“Thank you for sharing that with me. I appreciate it!”

“As a bill payer myself, I know how important to manage our finances.”

All of this sounds great! I feel heard. I feel seen. I feel appreciated as a customer.

Or, did I?

The truth is, I sensed it immediately. The playbook has been upgraded. In addition to “nice” it now includes “empathy.”

Not human empathy but, empathy the tactic.

At the end of my chat, the problem remained, I was given a number to call, and all I had to show for it was a morning derailed and wasted, and a representative, who was pleasant on the surface, but had no ability to help me.

“Your call is important to us”

man holding telephone screaming

So, how did I resolve it? I picked up the phone. I called the customer service line.

“We’re experiencing longer than usual call volume. Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line (for an unspecified amount of time), and we will answer your call in the order it was received.”

How many times have you heard that? Can you hear the robotic male or female voice in your head as you read that? If you hear that message every time you call, wouldn’t it stand to reason that the call volume should be expected at this point.

Some of these companies make billions in profit each year and pay little in taxes.

  • Could they hire more call reps? Perhaps.
  • Is our call really important to them? Who can really know? All we know is that they’ve said it.

I spent roughly two hours of my life across two phone calls, mostly on hold or being transferred. I want to believe the tone in the voice of the last woman I spoke with. She assured me that she would look into it, talk to her supervisor, and get back to me. Her voice sounded sincere, but regardless, after several rounds of escalation, she still had no ability to help me resolve the issue.

Research has shown…

grayscale photo of statue of man

So, if companies are going to waste our time in live chats, make us wait on hold with no end in sight, and don’t plan to give anyone the authority to fix customer problems, then why include the facade of caring? Why bother with the veneer of empathy? Why not just leave the phone off the hook, and provide no resource at all…like Facebook does.

Because they know it works.

Since Edward Bernays published Propaganda, businesses have been at the forefront of an ongoing battle to control our wants, needs, and opinions. Once Milton Friedman outlined his theory of shareholder primacy, the final piece was set for this nightmare to unfold.

Businesses are now designed to see the world through a limited lens that includes profit and loss. Everything is filtered through that lens. Now the rules are set: do whatever you can to increase shareholder value, including manipulation. This dogma has permeated so deeply that many companies will even break the law if the profits to be reaped exceed cost of the punishment. Do what you must, just make stock price go up.

When Robert Cialdini published his landmark book Influence, there was an explosion of marketers who began using affinity, scarcity, authority, commitment, reciprocity, and the power of social proof to sell more stuff.

  • It didn’t matter if the spokesperson wasn’t an actual authority or expert.
  • It didn’t matter if the product was actually scarce.
  • And it doesn’t matter if the kindness and empathy are real.

All that matters, is that you think it is.

Relationship Problems

This isn’t about my bill that increased. This is about how we interact with brands and how they interact with us.

I have long advocated for businesses to treat customers and employees like human beings, and for putting people before profits. I believe kindness is essential, and that a business world with more empathy would be better for everyone.

When companies entrust employees to truly care about the customer, encourage them through training and incentives to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, and then grant the authority to fix problems, the world would be a much better place.

And this is precisely why weaponized empathy is so alarming to me. It is the profit-motive cleverly disguised. Using empathy as a weapon against us is par for the course and we should anticipate that every bit of what makes us human will continue to be researched, strategized and turned into a weapon to increase shareholder value, see: company culture, mission, vision, values, woke brands, etc)

War & Peace

This only ends one of three ways. Either…

  • businesses win;
  • consumers win; or
  • we all make peace

Businesses are certainly organized and capitalized enough to win. If they do, we get less choice, we get worse products, we get worse services, and we’ll be lucky if we get customer service at all. We will continue to lose trust in the brands we buy from and the value and meaning of words will diminish past a point of return. We will continue to get less and less for our money and be locked into a race to the bottom, where we pay top dollar.

If we’re being honest, customers have little chance of winning, despite having power in numbers on both the labor side and the consumer side. On the labor side, unions are barely given a chance to organize because we have seen how effective collective bargaining and a labor strike can be at affecting change. So, companies fight it with everything they’ve got.

Boycotts by consumers can be effective but in these divisive times, while one group is boycotting the other is engaged in over-consumption as a show of support. Beyond that, switching from one company to another rarely solves the problem as you’ll quickly find out that they all are roughly the same.

Small businesses are one of the few sacred places where real empathy can still exist in business. Being part of the community they rely on, small businesses are in the best position to see their customers as human beings. They know that their survival depends on how well they stack up against the competition, and how well they serve their neighbors. Reputation still matters.

But when you’re dealing with a nationwide corporation, you are often little more than a customer ID with few options to choose from.

So what can we do?

The Guardians of Empathy

There are 3 audiences for this post.

For customers, here is what I’d like you to walk away with.

You can be a guardian of empathy by not allowing companies to pass off faux empathy. Expect companies, especially large ones, to use empathy to soften, calm, and distract you. They do this, not for a more pleasant conversation, but so that you will accept the non-answer and the unresolved issue. Call them on it, stand firm, and continue to escalate.

You didn’t contact customer support to make friends. You can still be kind and friendly, but do not accept a non-answer or non-resolution under the guise of corporate kindness.

For employees, here is what I’d like you to walk away with.

You can be a guardian of empathy who will not use empathy as a weapon for the company’s benefit. Expect companies, especially large ones, to do everything they can to maximize profit. They will do this at the customer’s expense, and they will do it at labor’s expense. Therefore, you have more in common with your customers than you do with the owners of your company. If you’re going to use empathy with customers, do not use it as a tactic. There is no point in hearing about someone’s problem only to leave them with no answer, or fail to fight on their behalf. Be honest with people.

For company owners and leaders, here is what I’d like you to walk away with.

You can be a guardian of empathy by actually thinking about your customer as a human being, creating policies that center them, and not stacking the entire deck against them. You could fix all of this tomorrow at your company by changing your focus. So long as you choose to make a profit BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY, we will fall deeper into this contentious arrangement. Don’t manipulate human beings, treat them with respect. There has to be a version of your company that is successful without harming consumers.

We can do better

Everything in business comes down to people. I can think of few things that are less people-centric than using empathy as a weapon in service of corporate profitability goals.

We should all demand better. Our call really should be very important to you.

Becoming Superhuman
Becoming Superhuman
Weaponized Empathy
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