Can Your Organization Afford Empathy?

For about a month now I have been pondering a post Seth Godin made about the limits of empathy and how it might apply to customer relations in an performing arts setting.

In the context of a customer who wants a refund on a car purchase after a broken limb prevents them from driving, Godin writes,

But empathy doesn’t require you to reach into your pocket because the customer has rewritten the terms of the deal and is undermining the business you’ve built to serve others.

Instead, it means that you can see his pain and that you’re completely okay with this person not buying from you again. That through the mist of pain and percocet, it’s entirely possible that he doesn’t have the reserves to be empathic to you, that he can’t see it through your eyes. And you probably can’t force him to.

So empathy leads to, “I hear you, I see you, and if you need to walk away, we’ll understand. We hope you’ll see it the way we do one day, but right now, I can’t solve your problem.”

We have occasionally had situations where people feel we should give them a refund for a performance that has occurred due to situations where they chose not to attend. Some times it was because they decided it was too cold, it rained too hard or because their road hadn’t been cleared two days after it stopped snowing. None of this providing an impediment to hundreds of other people. Other times there are some strong indications that they want a refund because they decided they wanted to do something else.

I am not sure how often Godin’s scenario of people wanting a refund on a car because they broke an arm actually happens. The reality is, people do have the option of doing something other than participate in an arts and cultural activity and often exercise that option. We can’t necessarily be philosophical in the way we respond to requests for refunds in the face of this reality.

One alternative is to have so much business that you are okay if a person chooses not to buy from you again.

We are all experienced with this type of scenario. Drew McManus just experienced that this past week.

In the context of Godin’s post, Drew was trying to rewrite the terms of the deal –pay a penalty if you want to change or cancel. It’s right there in the reams of small print you acknowledge when you buy the ticket. In American Airlines’ mind, it would be undermining the business they have built to serve others if they just let anyone cancel or reschedule.

On the other hand, not to excuse these policies, this summer American Airlines wanted to give pilots and flight attendants a pay raise outside of contract negotiations in recognition for a difficult time employees faced during the merger with US Airways and Wall Street sent their stock plummeting.

““We are troubled by [American’s] wealth transfer of nearly $1 billion to its labor groups. In addition to raising fixed costs, American’s agreement with its labor stakeholders establishes a worrying precedent, in our view, both for American and the industry,” J.P. Morgan analyst Jamie Baker wrote

So the fact that empathy is apt to be punished might be contributing to a cascade effect in corporate/organizational culture.

Perhaps one positive result of many arts organizations being small enough that they worry about losing customers even over ridiculous refund requests is that there is a tendency to treat constituents with a higher degree of empathy than they would receive elsewhere. Perhaps working on providing that can become something of a competitive advantage for some organizations.

There are no clear prescriptive answers to the type of refund requests I mentioned earlier. Each has to be addressed as they present themselves with the understanding that we may or may not damage our relationship with someone in the process.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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1 thought on “Can Your Organization Afford Empathy?

  1. Refund requests can get tricky. I think a lot depends on how much one pays for the service one is buying—expensive luxuries come with money-back guarantees, while bargain discounts come with no-refund policies.

    One theater subscription I get every year comes with free ticket exchanges—if something comes up that keeps you from attending a show, you can exchange the tickets for a different showing of the same play, up to the day of the performance. This is a benefit of the subscription—single-ticket sales don’t come with that exchange option.

    The problem mainly comes up when someone tries to charge luxury prices while providing bargain-basement services—that is the position many airlines have put themselves in. It results in short-term profits, but a serious erosion of customer loyalty. When another option becomes available, the customers all leave.

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