Economic Progress

Should you fake empathy?

Belinda Parmar
Chief Executive Officer, The Empathy Business
Our Impact
What's the World Economic Forum doing to accelerate action on Economic Progress?
The Big Picture
Explore and monitor how Economic Progress is affecting economies, industries and global issues
A hand holding a looking glass by a lake
Crowdsource Innovation
Get involved with our crowdsourced digital platform to deliver impact at scale
Stay up to date:

Economic Progress

“Have a nice day, and we hope you come back soon!” gushes the Disney store employee as I leave the premises. No matter how much I travel, I cannot get over my innate British cynicism which makes me want to roll my eyes at this enforced corporate cheerfulness.

But look deeper into the origins of that farewell and it is possible that somewhere in this enormous corporation there exists a genuine desire that their customers have ‘nice’ days. It may have occurred to somebody in the company that customers who have a good time really are more likely to return.

Indeed, the empathy and friendliness on display often isn’t fake at all, but a sincere attempt from headquarters to present a more human face to the outside world—and for solid business reasons. It is not a distraction from the more important business of making money. Rather it is an aid to making money.

I have seen that myself: our work across 42 brands in the automotive sector correlated higher growth (based on change in market share) with higher empathy levels. If making a bigger profit is a side effect of becoming a better company, why isn’t every company striving to be more empathic?

The simple answer is that becoming empathic is difficult. There are no quick-fix solutions that can make a company empathic. It takes time to get good at it, and those first faltering steps might seem to be inauthentic, even turning customers off.

But the important thing is that empathy can be taught. People can see changes in the brain after just 8 weeks of empathy training. And appearing to care is the very first step towards actually caring. Even the largest corporations can learn how to be empathic. And the rewards are worth it.

For an example of the effectiveness of empathy, ask Martin Richards, a hostage negotiator who spent 30 years with the Metropolitan Police. One of his most important lessons is that empathic behavior towards a hostage taker is almost always more effective than confrontational or threatening behavior. It hardly matters how he feels personally towards the criminal who has put innocent lives in danger. The act of showing empathy is the first step towards getting the hostage taker to start feeling for the lives he is endangering.

Call it fake if you like, but it works—and it saves lives.

For businesses, showing empathy may not be a matter of life and death, but is increasingly coming close in importance. Companies that can relate to their customers will thrive while those that continue to behave as though nothing has changed since the days of posted feedback will wither away and die.

Even clumsy displays of empathy, while grating, are better than the total lack of empathy shown by most corporations. But there remains some entities so far removed from this entire concept that they exhibit no empathy at all. Banks in particular and the finance sector in general consistently rank as the least empathic businesses.

There are good reasons for this. Floating on an ever-rising tide of complex regulation, banks face the challenge of crafting product that make them money while staying within the bounds of newly formed laws, dealing with public antipathy, and fighting off a thousand challenges from new finance technology startups. It’s not that banks consider customers to be unimportant. But keeping the systems live and the bank’s reputation clean have to rank somewhere above creating a sense of emotional delight for customers.

As a result, our interactions with our financial providers have become purely transactional. They are devoid of emotional content. Customers would be equally happy logging on to any bank, only the inertia created by the difficulty of changing financial arrangements creates an illusion of loyalty. When was the last time you heard anyone say they love their bank?

The irony is with the increased digitisation and technology, we as customers are craving higher levels of empathy and humanity than ever before. Yet the customers of the world’s biggest banks have come to expect less empathy than a hostage-taker would receive from a police officer.

The analogy is apposite. By showing empathy, the policeman gets the hostage taker to do what he wants. By showing a more human face, banks can persuade customers to stay with them and perhaps even to deepen their relationships. Companies which are most able to build an empathic rapport with their customers are the ones that tend to dominate their sectors. The companies that will win are the ones that have the resources to prioritize changing the relationships with their customers.

For banks, unlike Disney, it will take a lot more than simply wishing their customers a good day. Instead, they can start by listening to their customers wishes—and ensuring that they act on them.

Author: Belinda Parmar OBE is the CEO of Lady Geek and the author of The Empathy Era.

Image: Customer Tomoyoshi Fujimura (L) receives his Apple Watch purchase in a paper bag as a salesperson bows at an electronics store in Tokyo April 24, 2015. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Don't miss any update on this topic

Create a free account and access your personalized content collection with our latest publications and analyses.

Sign up for free

License and Republishing

World Economic Forum articles may be republished in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International Public License, and in accordance with our Terms of Use.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.

World Economic Forum logo
Global Agenda

The Agenda Weekly

A weekly update of the most important issues driving the global agenda

Subscribe today

You can unsubscribe at any time using the link in our emails. For more details, review our privacy policy.

The latest from the IMF on the global economy, and other economics stories to read

Joe Myers

April 12, 2024

About Us



Partners & Members

  • Join Us

Language Editions

Privacy Policy & Terms of Service

© 2024 World Economic Forum