20/02/2014 13:28 GMT | Updated 22/04/2014 06:59 BST

Never Waste a Good Crisis

With a lot of our rail infrastructure and most of Somerset under water, not to mention water levels continuing to rise across Britain it is fair to say we are in the midst of a national crisis.

He might not be in the top ten list of people I love in retail, but when former Tesco CEO Terry Leahy spoke about the occasional difficulties brands have - from local service problems to major outage and inconvenience - his catchphrase was "never waste a good crisis".

It stuck with me and comes to mind now; not least because I love a paradox. The idea of a major problem being an opportunity is a tough one for executives to grasp whilst it's all happening.

But a crisis is a moment when you're closer to your customers' experience than at any other time. It's a moment when you're clients are close to you. Their dependence on you is at its highest level - as is their awareness of that dependence. For good or ill, they know they can't do without you.

And because of that vulnerability on both sides, the spotlight is on the little signals that can tip a situation from empathy to antagonism.

Let me explain. One of the most obvious things a business can do is provide information about what's happening and what to expect. Get it right and you've moved along to the next square. Get it wrong and you quickly discover how events can turn against you.

I'd argue that focusing on the little things around the people you transact with (I'm thinking of your customers and your staff) is the most powerful thing you can do. Because it's "the little things that mean the world" when you have a crisis.

What will get everyone through any crisis is an appropriate use of empathy.

Empathy is one of those fabulously misunderstood words. Businesses very often think it's about saying sorry, conceding fault, accepting blame.

Watching Lord Smith and his rather soggy performance on the Somerset levels last week was a perfect demonstration of how to get it wrong.

Empathy means making it clear to the other person that you understand the rational and emotional position that they are in.

Get it right and it makes them feel heard and understood and that you are in a position to better deal with their problems. In turn they are more receptive to what you have to say because they have been listened to.

It also gives you more information so you are better able to help them.

Steven Covey, he of the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People used the fabulous expression "Seek to understand before you seek to be understood" - and that's called active empathy, and it is real empathy.

The benefits are that the other person is calmer because they feel heard and understood and you (the brand/company/member of staff on a platform) are more likely to give them a better answer because you fully understand what they have said.

The important bit here is to not listen through your own filter and experiences (do you find annoying those people who can barely wait to hear your story of misfortune by wanting to top it with their own? "oooh I know, I had that illness but ten times worse...")

So here's what we tell clients with a service problem.

Make sure your staff totally understand what's going on, give them all of the information and tools (leaflets, online resources) to keep the people they are dealing with informed at least as much as the staff are.

Train your people in empathetic listening

Establish eye contact and look sympathetic throughout the encounter

Be clear on what is being said - listen to the other person fully, don't interrupt them.

Repeat back what has been said to check understanding.

Good expressions

"I would feel the same way in your situation."

"I can see how important that is to you."

"I understand the position you're in and want to help."

"I don't know but I'll find out for you straight away."

Bad Expressions

"There's nothing I can do about it."

"You think you've got a problem? I was up all night."

"They don't tell us anything."

So, never waste a good crisis because this is precisely when people realise how much they need you, and when you have the biggest opportunity to display your understanding of how they feel.

There's a link here to the very wise words of Steven Covey if you want to read more.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn.