I used to always confuse this word with sympathy. But now that I’ve been in the customer service business for 20 plus years I realize that neither of these are practiced regularly. Sympathy is most often observed at funerals and charitable events. Empathy can be found in action each week as Ryan Seacrest interviews contestants that just got beat up by Simon. He’s so mean.

I have always been intrigued by a company named USAA. It creeps up in tons of my conversations and research on customer service. It tops the list of Net Promoter Score users, and now has made the cover of Business Week magazine’s first ever ranking of companies where the consumer is king. USAA is ranked number 1.

USAA is an auto and home insurance company open only to military members and their families. Not everyone can join. Interesting concept. Those lucky enough to be customers get service from reps with great benefits, including 2006 bonuses of 16.5%.

The secret to their success? Empathy. They serve military. In employee orientation they eat MREs (meals ready to eat) just like their soldiers do in the field. They also strap on a 65 pound backpack and flak vest – just to get a feel of what their customers go through each day. For one split second, they are in the boots of our troops.

Insurance products are commodities. USAA doesn’t sell anything unique, but the common bond of the military oozes throughout the organization. As one agent put it, “The reason we have choices is because they’re out there giving up theirs.” The least we can do is be nice on the phone when one calls from the field to file a claim.

Interestingly enough, JetBlue was ranked number 4 on Business Week’s list but got crossed off because of the Valentine’s Day debacle that resulted in passengers stranded on the runway for up to 10 1/2 hours. JetBlue did not practice empathy that day — and that’s what lead to the meltdown. The CEO values empathy and is determined to make it part of their culture now. I hope it’s not too late for them.

Credit unions have a common bond. How do they practice empathy? If you serve fire or police, school teachers, postal workers…..longshoremen, grocery clerks, nurses, mechanics…there are tons of opportunities to take your eye off the bottom line (loan income) and on the uniqueness of the people you serve. The people who OWN the credit union.

Love to hear some ideas……

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