Empathy – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made!

Did the title get your attention? It’s based on a quote attributed to the legendary comedian George Burns who said, “Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” It’s possible George may have ‘lifted’ the quote from Jean Giraudoux, a French novelist, diplomat and playwright. Did he? Mr. Burns is not with us anymore, so we can’t ask him, but if he were, what are you gonna’ believe from a guy who recommends faking being sincere? Besides, if you go back far enough, most quotes were said by someone else. He was very talented, but I don’t expect everything said by Jean Giraudoux was original. Maybe he ‘lifted’ his quote from the American philosopher Groucho Marx who said, ‘The secret of life is honesty and fair dealing. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.’

Research indicates that nobody has laid claim to the title of this chapter, so I’m laying claim to it as mine. “Empathy,” Tim Paulsen said, “If you can fake that, you’ve got it made!”

But there is a very good reason it hasn’t been said before or claimed by someone else. As important as it is to our business of accounts receivable management, more so in this time of COVID-19, it is not the same as sympathy and should not be compared with honesty or compassion. You can fake being sincere, you can fool ‘em about honesty and fair dealing. You can’t fake empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy, I’ve been told, comes from the Greek, meaning ‘to see thru the eyes of another’. It may have been said best by Atticus, sharing important information to his daughter, Scout, in the iconic novel, ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”

“Think of it from my point of view,” a customer says, or seem to say, “why should I pay you?” To better understand our customers, we have to walk a mile or two in their shoes. Less logic – more emotion, or if you are old enough to appreciate the analogy, ‘a little more of Captain Kirk and a little less of Mr. Spock’.

Why is it important?

We can’t force anyone to pay an account. It will always be their decision. We hope to influence them, provide reasons and it is entirely natural for us to consider and offer reasons from our point of view. But nobody, not an individual on their own, a small business owner or an accounts payable manager in a large organization, nobody pays because it is in our interest. They pay when it is good for them.

Let’s take the case of Caroline who loaned her sister Jocelyn, living in Montreal, $500 last year to take a hairdressing course. The deal was for re-payment of $100 a month, starting six months ago. The first payment of $100 was received, two weeks late. Nothing since. Finally, Caroline reaches her sister on the telephone, it wasn’t easy. “Hey,” she tells her, “I could really do with that money, I’ve got some bills of my own, you know and some painting I want to do in my apartment.”

Does Jocelyn care? No. At least, not very much. It is not that she is an evil person and she is her sister, it is just entirely natural that the way she sees the world and most importantly, priorities for paying from her limited (her view) resources, is not the same as Caroline.

Until she can come up with reasons why it is important to TOS, the other side, in this case, Jocelyn, then it may be a long time, if ever before Caroline gets paid.

How do you get it?

If someone called you and asked, how to get to your house, there is no point n providing directions to the airport if they live in the same city. The question would be, ‘where are you now’. To see thru the eyes of our customers, to better discover where they are now, we need to develop a profile.

It is not a crime to be weeks, months or even years past due on an account and I urge caution in any comparison, yet criminal profilers, the types often contracted by law enforcement, use their knowledge of psychology, behavior and analysis to build a profile of an offender. It is made up of logical guesses based on evidence and analysis. A profile may be used to interrogate suspects in a way that appeals to their psychological process.

Would something similar work well in dealing with your customers? It already does. On your ‘best days’ or that of some of your colleagues, when you have a ‘type’ of customer on the telephone or sitting across from your desk, you alter your approach based on what you see and your experience. The professional empathetic approach to effective collections is to arrive at your questions and your overall approach in a more deliberate fashion.

Let’s say for example that you deal with small business owners, many who may have had to close their doors during this time of COVID-19.

Put on those shoes and go walk-about. What are they saying? What do they think? What do they feel?

  • I’ve worked hard for the last ten years to develop my business, in just a couple of weeks, it’s gone…maybe forever
  • I can’t pay my staff and you’re calling me for a past due bill!
  • When is this gonna’ be over?
  • I’m close to sixty years old, could be a health concern if I open my business too soon
  • The only thing I’ve got a lot of is bills
  • None of this is my fault!
  • Before this, I always paid you on time
  • You say ‘we’re in this together’, then come join me with no money coming in!
  • What you gonna’ do! Courts are closed. You can’t take any action!

The objective of the profile is to know out customer better and to communicate more effectively, providing reasons why it is in their interest to make a payment, even if a token amount or at least a commitment for the future.

Is it manipulation?

We could look at it two ways. It could be described as the skillful handling and control or it could describe a person who twists words or plays on emotions to get what they want. I prefer the former.

The danger of empathy

To return to the analogy of criminal profilers, there is a recognized danger in spending too long in the skin or minds of a criminal. If you watch enough movies or television involving profilers, you will come across a famous quote by Nietzsche, ‘If you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you’. He seems to be warning us that if you spend too much time with monsters, be careful you don’t become a monster yourself. [1]

After we have walked a few miles or kilometers in the shoes of our customer, developed our profile, the next step is to take off the shoes, return to our side of the table and develop an action plan. Knowing what we know now, what may be the best questions for our customers. What may motivate them to provide additional information, commitment for the future.

Come up with a script, but then, at least metaphorically, toss it away. Nobody in general, especially in these times we are going thru, like to hear someone who appears to be reading from a script, “your call is very important to us,” type of thing. You’ve got to say it like to mean it, and if you have been successful in your empathy development program, mean what you say:

“Mr. Hill, a lot of times we say that we’re all in this together, but I expect you’re going through some times our company hasn’t experienced. After all, we haven’t had to close our doors while this virus business continues. So, I’m not gonna’ say something stupid like, “I understand how you feel”, but I do appreciate these are not only difficult times that we don’t know when will end or how they turn out, nothing caused by us either, but this I do know…we want to work with you, get us through this to the other side. I’m hopin’ if we continue to talk now and again in the coming weeks, we might be able to do that. What do you say?”

Can’t be faked

Something that is perceived by the other side can be less than truthful. Just because a young man wears his pants low, without a belt, underwear showing, it doesn’t mean he’s just out of jail. A woman with many rips and holes in her jeans, doesn’t mean she can’t afford anything better. A politician might begin is speech with “To be honest with you’, but…well, you get the idea. However, empathy is something that you and only you can do. You look through the eyes of the other person or you don’t.

Despite the title, unlike sincerity, honesty, fair dealings, landing on the moon and even orgasm for that matter, empathy can’t be faked.

[1] Once again, a debtor is not a criminal, not a monster. Profiles may be done for any profession, useful on making a sale, customer service, or debt collection. .

This chapter has been 'lifted' from Tim's new eBook: Panic Instructions - Collections during the time of COVID-19