What Nordstrom knows about service is also the secret to storytelling

Lisa McIntire Shaw was getting ready for bed when she noticed that the diamond on her wedding ring had fallen out. She had spent the evening shopping at Nordstrom, and she raced back to the store just as it was closing. A manager, Eric Wilson, noticed her crawling through the racks, scouring the floor. Recognizing her panic, he joined her in the search, but to no avail.

Wilson refused to give up. He called the staff together, and they started ripping open vacuum cleaner bags. Hours later, two members of the cleaning crew found the diamond in a bag full of dirt and lint. Lisa broke into tears when Wilson gave her the news. “My heart just leapt,” she said. “Sure, I have insurance. But to have my diamond back meant the world.”

Nordstrom knows a thing or two about service. It knows that great service is based on the discipline of putting the needs of the customer ahead of the needs of the business. In other words, Nordstrom understands empathy – and how to put it into practice as a business value.

It’s a principle that’s just as important for the storyteller.

You’ll never be a good storyteller if you’re bad at empathy. You may entertain the occasional dog, sycophant, or reflection in a mirror. You may even have something profound to say. But without empathy, you might as well talk only to yourself.

I define empathy as the power to inhabit another person’s experience. It’s not about knowing things, it’s about living them, letting them affect you and altering what you feel and do. When your friend has a broken heart, being empathetic means your heart is going to get hurt as well.

Empathy matters most when you offer it in a time of loss or struggle. Success has no trouble finding friends. But failure is a lonely outcast. Empathy is the comforting arm around the shoulder, saying nothing but simply being there. Empathy is an act of love.

Here’s the thing: empathy is expensive.

Empathy in storytelling means that you think first about your audience before you open your mouth. This can be hard when you’re burning to express an idea or share some data point or achievement that you consider to be important. It’s not that your point of view doesn’t matter. It’s just that nobody much cares about it until you make them care.

To practice empathy in storytelling, follow this simple roadmap:

  1. Put aside for a moment your own need to be heard, recognized, validated, or understood.

  2. Dive deeply, like a researcher or a detective, into the life and mind of your audience until you understand what matters to them – what they want, need, love, and fear.

  3. Identify one thing that you have to offer – an experience or a moment of insight, for example – that you think might resonate with the values your audience holds dear, and offer it up without any agenda other than to find common ground.

People respond with deep positive emotion when their values are recognized and confirmed. And when you affirm the validity of their needs and their points of view, you build strong bonds of trust. There’s no better way to forge a connection.

Nordstrom trains its people to focus first on what customers need to feel happy and whole. Eric Wilson, the manager at Lisa McIntire Shaw’s store, didn’t care about what she was buying, he was down there on the floor, desperately looking for that lost diamond ring. 

“This really happened,” Shaw said. “This wasn’t a fabricated, ‘Oh, thank you Mrs. Shaw for shopping at Nordstrom.’ This was: ‘I did this for you because that’s who I am as a Nordstrom employee, and I value you as a Nordstrom customer.’”

And as for her loyalty to Nordstrom, “It’s solid. I’m locked in.”

Watch the Nordstrom story for yourself:

…and note that companies that practice empathy like Nordstrom have no problem harvesting the kinds of stories that most brands only dream of.