The credo of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company is only nine words long: "We are ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen." It's a philosophy that permeates all aspects of Ritz-Carlton operations, from the laminated credo cards in every employee's pocket to the respect for customers in every interaction.

Companies like Ritz-Carlton are the gold standard for top-notch customer service, and there's a clear reason for this distinction. The company's credo not only encourages employees to treat customers like royalty but also to look at themselves through the same lens--as equals.

Emphasizing empathy and connection can create a fast bond with customers. Doing so for your own company may improve much more than just your bottom line.

Energizing With Empathy

It may seem like fostering empathy both inside and outside of your company is a no-brainer. Yet 92 percent of employees feel their bosses are undervaluing empathy in the workplace, according to a survey by Businessolver. That means they're losing out on the powerful benefits empathy brings. For example, eight in 10 employees say they'd be willing to work longer hours for an empathetic employer, while 90 percent would be more likely to stay in their position, decreasing expensive turnover rates for companies.

In fact, everything from morale to customer service can be improved by simply understanding and sharing your employees' feelings. As Rhonda Basler, director of customer engagement for Hallmark Business Connections, notes, "Creating an empathetic employee culture will not only provide a positive work environment of committed and loyal employees, it will also spread that commitment to your customers."

By extension, this same philosophy can apply to sales and business retention. It's well-known in the sales world that the best way to land new customers is to anticipate their needs and articulate how a product or service can solve specific pain points. And the research bears this out: Studies show a direct correlation between how employers treat employees, how employees treat customers, and how that translates into brand loyalty.

A Jolt of Culture Shock

While talking about an empathetic culture is all well and good, putting it into active practice is another story. Here are a few steps to ensure your organization is walking the walk:

1. Send employees out into the field.

One common approach for a business seeking to inspire empathy in its customer service team is to have reps meet their potential customers face-to-face. But other companies have taken this idea a step further, giving their teams a chance to inhabit the customer role completely. Look at IDEO, the global design and consulting firm. The company regularly creates empathy experiments to show their employees and clients what life is like for those they're seeking to help. 

In one instance, they showed clients at a power company how their billing system--which was opaque and filled with hidden charges--discouraged the company's low-income customers from paying their bills. Instead of simply pointing out the unanticipated fees, IDEO let its clients experience them by simulating a Goldfish cracker-based economy in their office. Activities like taking the elevator or sitting at a meeting incurred unexpected cracker fees that could disrupt their day. 

By creatively altering your perspective on your customers' struggles, you can more readily understand their unique position and be more equipped to help solve it.

2. Conduct empathy education.

Not all customer difficulties are unexpected. Anticipating complaints is an opportunity to provide education on how to empathize with wronged parties before a hardship occurs.

Such was the case with tax preparation company H&R Block, whose leadership recognized in advance that customers would be receiving, on average, 8 percent less money in their 2018 tax refund compared to previous years. To prepare for customer reactions to this news, the company added a layer of empathy training to its already rigorous employee education curriculum. Agents ran through various scenarios, such as that of a customer who previously received large refunds having to owe money due to the new tax laws, to force themselves to think their way through customer complaints before being faced with the real thing.

Are there developments in your industry or market that are likely to cause your customers pain? If so, get in front of them so you'll either be able to mitigate the consequences or, at the very least, be prepared to sympathize.

3. Enlist empathetic robots.

Emphasizing empathy in customer interactions doesn't end with your employees. Even your artificial intelligence can help by analyzing customer emotions before passing off a request to a (human) customer service agent. In fact, there are some cases in which AI can increase the feelings of connection with customers before the agent even gets involved.

According to a 2015 study from Penn State University, there are two actions that agents can take to increase empathetic connections with customers over web chat: swift responses and--wait for it--emoticons. By programming chatbots to respond quickly, offer apologies where appropriate, and utilize apt emoticons in dialogue, this customer connection can be established up front and then maintained as you transition into human interactions.

Client or agent, we're all just ladies and gentlemen, and walking a mile in your customer's shoes will take you far in business. By encouraging and emphasizing empathy--in your customer service, your employee interactions, and the foundations of your culture--you can increase productivity and satisfaction in every avenue of your organization.