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  • Writer's pictureShalini Lal

The One Super Power

Updated: Nov 30, 2019

A few years ago, my parents and I went for a vacation to the beautiful island of Langkawi.

 Now my father is someone who isn’t the biggest fan of travel or of unfamiliar experiences in general. He was however really looking forward to simply spend time with us--uninterrupted! 

Let me also add he is also a vegetarian and someone who is happiest eating home-cooked dhal chawal.

 Our bookings were at the gorgeous Andamans Hotel which is situated within an ancient rainforest—complete with all its natural life. The place is simply gorgeous, but so far away from any civilization…what would he be able to get to eat?

 Now like any good international hotel—the menu had good international food. There was even a small Indian selection.

 But as you and I both know—it is hard to enjoy Pindi Cholley, Dal Makhani or Dum Aloo in each meal.

At one of our first meals at the restaurant—our server watched us go back and forth on our food selection as we tried to find the right dish for Papa. He excused himself and came back a few minutes later with his manager.

“Hi I am Sebastian. I am the manager here. I am originally from South Africa, I have worked for many years across Asia, and I do understand how hard it can be to find food you like away from home.” He said all smiles.

“But I think I may have just the thing for you. One of our Chefs is Indian. Shall I ask him to come over and see if he can do something special for you?”

Now of course, there was only one way to answer that—Yes!


Sure enough, we were greeted by our Chef (from India) who asked Papa what kind of food he liked to eat.

“Well home-made light and simple food is best. Dal chawal, roti, baingan bharta, bhindi, aloo ki subzi, rajmah”.

Now for the rest of our stay he prepared something “home cooked” for Papa each day

It has been a few years since, but Papa remembers our experience at the Andamans as one of the best holiday experiences he ever had.

Part of it was the food, which was simple and tasty.

Part of it was the experience that you truly mattered.

 And you can be sure that he will be recommending them for a long time.

Now what does this mean for us as business leaders?

Well, most businesses have spent the last few decades getting the operations right.

This has not been not easy (at all). But many businesses have figured this out. Their ability to build scale and efficiency has been a primary source of a healthy bottom-line.

What has proven far trickier is being able to build deep emotionally rich customer experiences of delight.

Now organizations have flirted with this idea for many years.

But it is just a handful of companies who have found a way to do this consistently.

 And these are the brands that build a loyalty that defies reason. Think of how Apple customers pay huge premiums for the “delight” of using a MacBook.

We stay connected with these brands despite the features offered by their competition. (Think Disney, the Oberois, )

The superpower that is behind this ability is the often forgotten “Empathy”.

Prof. Thomke at the Harvard Business School studies what makes customer experiences sticky and unforgettable. It turns out that when people have a deeply personal customer experience, they describe it in words such as these:

“Made me feel special. Showed empathy. Really cared. Personalized the process. Trusted me. Didn’t argue or delay. Killed us with kindness. Owned the problem. Surprised us. Made things simple.”

Behind each of these statements lies one common theme—Empathy!

 Last week I was at a conference where I was asked what the secret to success in the age of technology would be.

The simple to state yet hard to implement answer is “Empathy”.

 As technology takes on some of the operational heavy-lifting, it becomes easier than ever to give satisfactory customer service. But the truly great brands will be the ones which have the superpower of creating emotionally rich positive customer experiences.

Now all humans actually have the fundamental apparatus for empathy—mirror neurons.

About 10 to 20 percent of the neurons in our brain fire when someone else is going through an experience. Called mirror neurons, these are the fundamental apparatus that allows humans to experience empathy.

About 75,000 years ago our species suddenly developed the ability to communicate ideas, learn and imitate from others. We now know that this came from the relatively sudden development of our brains to include a sophisticated mirror neuron network. This allowed us to experience what another was experiencing and quickly learn from it.

 So we all have the physical apparatus for empathy.

 The challenge for organizations is to be able to consistently keep this empathy at the center of their customer (or even employee) experience.

 The rewards for those who manage this are tremendous.

Our emotions influence our actions far more than we realize.

When we are able to use our empathy to make our customers feel “understood” and “cared for”, we are encoding their experience with us with rich positive emotions. And these rich positive emotions are not just in the moment—they get wired into our brains.

 Two areas of our brain—the hippocampus and amygdala physically encode our associations of customer delight. Prompting us to reach out time and again—to repeat the experience that brought them joy in the first place.


 And that is exactly the superpower that builds truly exceptional businesse 


“The magic that makes customer experiences stick.”, Stefan Thomke, MIT Sloan Management Review. Read about it hereThe neurons that shaped civilization, Vilayanur Ramachandran; TEDIndia 2009

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