Clients Speak: How a Lack of Empathy Destroyed a Relationship and Scorched the Earth for Ten Years

Years ago, I moderated a panel discussion about trusted business advisors. I interviewed three senior executives who were chosen because they had spent a lifetime selecting and hiring professional advisors and suppliers of all types. The audience consisted of the senior bankers from a prestigious global investment bank.

My first question for the panel was, “Can you tell me about your most trusted advisors? Which bankers—and banks—are in your ‘inner circle,” and why? What qualities do they bring to the table?”

The first CEO responded:

“The banker or any other person who is my trusted advisor is there for me through thick and thin. They aren’t just present and providing advice when there are lots of fees being paid out. They come see me and add value even during the dry spells.”

The second CEO spoke:

“My trusted advisor always puts my interests first. He is willing to say “no” and push back. He asks thought provoking questions and listens well. He has great integrity. He’s utterly and completely reliable. And I never hear excuses.”

The third executive answered:

“At my company, we use investment bankers, but there is one that we will not work with. We avoid them.”

The audience’s eyes opened wide.

“Can you tell us more about what happened?” I asked.

He explained:

“Ten years ago I was part of an internal mergers and acquisitions team that was assessing the possible acquisition of another company. We worked for weeks together on it. Things reached a fevered pitch over the weekend. We had camped out at our offices and gotten minimal sleep.

At a certain point, we needed to appoint an Investment Bank, so we put one of the major banks we work with on standby over the weekend. The senior banker and his team agreed to come in at noon.

In the meantime, we were starving. We had a bacon sandwich delivered for each of us.

Soon after the sandwiches arrived, the head banker walked in, looking well rested and impeccably dressed—a contrast to our semi-disheveled state. He spied the sandwich tray on the table. A single sandwich remained because one of my colleagues had not yet eaten his. ‘Bacon sandwiches! I just love these,’ he said. He reached for the last sandwich. My colleague was too polite to say anything. The banker began eating it enthusiastically. He literally gobbled it down.

My colleague’s jaw dropped. He hadn’t eaten for hours and was dying to bite into his delicious bacon sandwich.”

There was silence in the audience. As the moderator, all I could say was, “Huh. And then?”

The CEO continued, “That colleague of mine, whose sandwich was taken, is now our Chief Financial Officer.”

Heads were shaking across the auditorium.

He added:

“We’ve never used that particular investment bank again. Never. Ever. A decade later, they are still shut out. So my advice to you is this: Don’t eat your client’s bacon sandwich if you want to become a trusted advisor.”

Nervous laughter broke out in the auditorium. The behavior the CEO described is simply cringe-worthy. Our friend the banker could have avoided ten years in the wilderness if he had done a very simple exercise: to imagine what it’s like to walk in his client’s shoes.

Imagine if the banker instead had arrived that Monday morning knowing that the client’s corporate finance team had been burning the midnight oil for days and that they’d be haggard and sleep-deprived. Imagine he had gone out of his way to be polite and respectful, walking in with a box full of fresh croissants and several steaming cappuccinos, greeting them by saying, “I know you guys have been up half the night. Maybe these will help you keep going!”

By walking in his client’s shoes, and acting on that insight, the banker would have utterly disarmed the client. Evaporated their biases about highly-paid investment bankers. And the banker would potentially be picking up multi-million dollar fees, year after year.

Which brings us to an important law of relationships: Walk in the other person’s shoes.

Close your eyes and think about the pressures the other person is under. Imagine what they’re feeling right now. Empathize with them. Become the person. Walk in their shoes. Ask yourself: How will they react to my presence and to what I have to say? Follow Abraham Lincoln’s adage. He wrote, “When I go to meet with someone, I spend two-thirds of my time thinking about what they are going to say, and one-third of my time thinking about what I am going to say.

Do these things, and you’ll come across as engaging, trustworthy, and interested in their success.

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