Book Review: Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik

Book Review: Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik
Reviewed by Jane Davis

Around the time I started reading Wired to Care by Dev Patnaik, I was talking to some managers in a retail organisation who were raving about the impact of a recent workplace initiative for leaders.  It involved getting out of Head Office and spending two days in a store, following a structured programme and being taught all about how a store operates.  Not only did they have to complete the training for team members in a store, but work on the shop floor and serve customers.  There is no doubt that it was a reality check for participants – all of whom should have walked away with far greater empathy for store team members and customers, and far greater awareness of the impact of their decisions on others.

This is a great example of building empathy for customers by stepping into their shoes, which is the theme of the book Wired to Care.  It focuses on how empathy for customers can help companies create better products and services and how this empathy can create meaning around one’s job.   The book describes many compelling examples that show how empathy for customers has created value for companies.  It shows how companies thrive by hiring the customers they are serving (like Microsoft’s Xbox, Harley Davidson, Nike), how companies struggle when they lose touch with their customers and how companies’ close contact with customers helps them adapt over time.

My favourite is the story about Maxwell House, an American coffee chain.  Instead of simply cataloging the (late 90s) rise of Starbucks, Patnaik prefaced his discussion of the coffee chain by focusing on how Maxwell House had slowly degraded their coffee over time by replacing Arabica beans with Robusta due to supply and cost pressure. They’d devalued their own product almost imperceptibly over time and slowly lost touch with their customers while doing so.

All the stories demonstrate that in order for companies to succeed, they should rely on the human impulse to care.  People want to do what is right; the issue may just be that the employees are so removed from the customers that the company forgets who it is serving.  I suspect this was the aim of the initiative described in the retailer mentioned above.

Clearly its critical to understand the customer’s issues and circumstances to define the true problem before creating something that works for them.

The book gives more stories and examples than actual tools to create empathy, but there are a few suggestions:

  1. Make it easy
  2. Make it everyday
  3. Make it experiential

Some examples of these tactics include:

  • Target headquarters in Minneapolis has a Target store next door so employees can easily hang out with shoppers
  • Sporting goods company Spalding built basketball courts outside the main office so employees are encouraged to use their products constantly
  • Nike headquarters in Beaverton has miles of running trails on campus and images/memorabilia of their athletes everywhere so employees are inspired and energised.

For some companies it would be more difficult for employees to walk in customers’ shoes (investment firms, pharmaceutical companies, elderly care), but the effort should be made to truly understand the customer and what matters to them.  It is important to step back and realise how people are using products in the real world.  It is also important to step back and realise the impact you can have on peoples’ lives.

The last few chapters of the book begin to focus on how corporate empathy can actually make an organisation a better place to work.  When employees feel like their work is valued and that they are part of something larger, the work is more meaningful.  All products and services do have the potential to make someone’s life better; it just may take some digging to figure out the right message for both the customer and the employees.  If you have a strong connection to the people you serve, it makes it easier for you to go to work and know that what you do is important to someone’s well being.

Since humans truly are wired to care, we should focus on cultivating that to make our careers and companies more valuable.  This book helps bring examples of empathy to life and shows how widespread empathy can make a positive change in organisations.  It’s a quick and easy read and while it didn’t say anything truly new, it was a good reminder that kindness and caring are not failings  – they are true assets.


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