BUSINESS

Why Warby Parker Bought A Customer A Round Of Drinks

02/27/2015 10:29 am ET | Updated Feb 27, 2015

Tess Johnson was pretty upset when she showed up at a Warby Parker in Atlanta last Tuesday to pick up her new glasses frames. Her car had been stolen earlier that day, and she found herself sharing the tale with the retail employees in the store. Days later, Johnson opened her mailbox to find a Warby Parker envelope containing a $20 gift certificate to a local bar.

“Everyone was so empathetic," Johnson, 25, who works at Atlanta ad agency Blue Sky, told The Huffington Post of the Warby Parker staff. "I felt like they were on my level. It brightened up my whole week after such a crappy thing happened to me.”

It's fitting that Johnson, whose photo of the gift certificate went viral on social media this week, should describe the staff as "empathetic." The word has come to be a cornerstone of how Warby Parker does business. An empathetic approach has been shown to help sales interactions for both customers and sellers, according to a 2013 report from Baylor University. And it's Warby Parker's "golden rule," says co-CEO Neil Blumenthal.

“We look a lot for self-awareness and for empathy [in our employees],” Blumenthal said in an interview with The Huffington Post in 2013. “I think it’s really hard to serve customers well if you’re not empathetic. I think it’s hard to collaborate with others if you’re not empathetic. I think the people that are the best at customer service are the ones who are the most empathetic.”

Empathy is so important to businesses that the Harvard Business Review created a ranking measuring companies for their "empathy quotient." LinkedIn and Microsoft topped that list, which featured only companies that operate in the U.K. (Warby Parker -- which primarily sells its glasses online and has only a few retail locations, all of them located in the U.S. -- wasn't included on the list.)

Some experts contend empathy may be among the most important values for businesses to cultivate.

Tess Johnson's Instagram of gift certificate she received from Warby Parker:

But maintaining such an understanding business culture isn’t so easy, according to Natalie Baumgartner, founder of Roundpegg, a company that advises businesses on their corporate culture. For one, you need employees that are “hardwired” to be empathetic.

“What are an employee's true core values?” Baumgartner said hirers should ask themselves, citing an openness to feedback, the ability to listen and the desire to put people first as qualities closely associated with empathy. “The very best predictor of [employees’] behavior on the job [are their personal values], regardless of what [managers] tell them they want to see.”

But organizations also need to give employees the freedom and security to put their natural tendencies toward empathy into practice.

“[Warby Parker’s] employees weren’t in a position where they had to feel conflicted about how to do their job while also supporting the customer,” Baumgartner said of the incident with Johnson.

In an email to HuffPost, Warby Parker co-CEO Dave Gilboa echoed Baumgartner in just a few words when he explained how the company instills empathy in its staff: “Lead by example and hire people that we trust and respect.”

It may sound simple, but at least for Johnson, it seems to have worked.

“Yeah, I’ll probably be a return customer,” she joked.

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