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I couldn’t believe it.

I had been navigating a company’s labyrinthine customer service system for over two hours, to voice my deep concern to someone who would actually listen. I made it all the way to the Office of the President, and one of his assistants floored me with this comment.

“Let me see if I understand you correctly… It costs you and your company almost nothing to grant my request, and the result is going to be better sleep for everyone and a quick closure. But instead, you’re refusing to grant my request simply because of your policy?”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“So you’re telling me that your policy trumps compassion?”

“Yes, the policy trumps compassion.”

I wish I could tell you that I fought for another two hours until I found a compassionate soul elsewhere in the company who could help me. I wish I could tell you that I hung up and calmly called back their HR and Training departments to explain the errors of their ways. But I didn’t, because sharing this lesson is far more important.

Based on their policies, the company was totally in the right: I had signed a contract for services provided and I was attempting to exit the contract prematurely without paying the fee. My reasoning: since the features of the services had not been fully explained to me by a company representative before I signed the contract, then the company hadn’t upheld their end of the deal.

No matter how many times I asked them to listen, they simply read back from their policy. Result: I got nowhere fast and no one had a good day.

Do not confuse culture with rules and policies. Creating more rules and policies does not make your employees’ lives any easier, nor does it automatically please your customers.

Listening is not the same as hearing and responding from a script. I repeatedly asked for empathy, and what I got was… more policies.

Empathy and compassion are not buzzwords to read back from a handbook. They are not catchphrases that come and go with new marketing trends. They are the foundation, the bedrock of how we serve others.

Are you in business solely to make money? You. Will. Fail. There are far more, and far more effective, ways to exchange energy with those around us. Money is a stand-in for energy, not a one-to-one replacement.

No business can thrive without money changing hands. But no business can become great if that’s the only thing exchanged.

Appreciation. Respect. Trust. Honesty. Integrity. Attention. Empathy. Compassion. If your culture isn’t built upon these values, why not?

There is a happy ending to this story, though. I had a great opportunity to take my business elsewhere.


Don’t confuse reading a recipe with cooking. Put some heart in your actions, starting with this Chawanmushi from Michelle Tam.