1: The Washington (then) Redskins CFO was worried. And cranky. It was two weeks before the season opener.
“He walked by TJ’s desk and slammed down a folder full of paper,” writes FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss in Never Split the Difference: Negotiating As If Your Life Depended On It.
TJ was the assistant controller. He was also taking Chris’s negotiation class at Georgetown University.
“Inside was a list of forty season ticket holders who hadn’t paid their bills, a USB drive with a spreadsheet about each one’s situation, and a script to use when calling them.”
“Better yesterday than today,” the CFO said to TJ as he walked away.
The assignment was grim. “The economy was in the toilet at the time, and Redskins season ticket holders were leaving in droves to avoid the cost,” Chris writes. “Worse, the team had been terrible the year before, and off-field player problems were alienating the fans.”
2: To make matters worse, the script was a disaster.
“It began by saying that his colleagues had been trying to call for months, and the account had been escalated to him. ‘I wanted to inform you,’ it read, ‘that in order to receive your tickets for the upcoming season opener against the New York Giants, you will need to pay your outstanding balance in full prior to September 10.'”
The script was in “the stupidly aggressive, impersonal, tone-deaf style of communication that is the default for most business,” Chris observes. “It was all ‘me, me, me,’ with no acknowledgement of the ticket holder’s situation. No empathy. No connection. Just give me the money.”
TJ picked up his phone and started making calls. He left messages. No one called back.
3: Inspired by what he was learning in Chris’s class, TJ rewrote the script. He knew his best strategy was to connect with the delinquent ticket holders by being empathetic.
“What he did was add subtle tweaks to make the call about the fans, their situation, and their love of the team,” Chris relates. “These weren’t massive changes, and he didn’t offer the fans any discounts.”
To begin, the team was now “YOUR Washington Redskins.”
The purpose of his call was to make sure the team’s most valuable fans—the delinquent ticket holders—would be there at the season opener.
“The home-field advantage created by you each and every Sunday at FedEx Field does not go unnoticed,” TJ wrote.
He then told them: “In these difficult times, we understand our fans have been hit hard and we are here to work with you.” He asked the ticket holders to call back to discuss their “unique situation.”
TJ didn’t avoid or deny the emotions at play. Instead, he addressed them directly. “It’s about understanding them. Empathy helps us learn the position they are in, why their actions make sense to them, and what might move them.”
He demonstrated that he understood their feelings and their mindset.
“Though superficially simple, the changes TJ made in the script had a deep emotional resonance with the delinquent ticket holders,” Chris writes. “It mentioned their debt to the team but also acknowledged the team’s debt to them, and by labeling the tough economic times, and the stress they were causing, it diffused the biggest negative dynamic—their delinquency—and turned the issued into something solvable.”
So what happened?
“With the new script, TJ was able to set up payment plans with all ticket holders before the Giants game,” Chris writes.
“And the CFO’s next visit? Well, it was far less terse.”
Reflection: How many opportunities are there inside my company to use empathy to address a business challenge?
Action: Discuss with a colleague or with my team. Today.