· Misc

Empathy in Customer Service

A lot of people think customer service is just about fixing things and solving problems. That’s not the whole story. The real goal of customer service is to provide a positive experience that people will associate with your company. Solving a customer’s problem often achieves this, but that’s not always within the control of the employee. Some cases need to be escalated, but others were never really product problems to begin with.

What is true 100% of the time, is that when a customer reaches out for service, he or she just wants to be heard and feel like the person on the other end of the conversation truly understands what they are going through. When we take the time to put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and truly try to understand what they are feeling, we can really make a huge difference in the whole interaction.

I was recently flying from Toronto to my hometown in Calgary via Pearson International Airport, and even though I am a well-seasoned traveler the whole experience frustrated me. After numerous errors on the carrier’s end, a horrible time at customs, and literally running through the airport to reach my next flight, I finally arrived at the gate. There were 3 large flights leaving from 3 consecutive gates, all at the same time, in the same small corner of the airport. Literally – 500+ people all crowded together. Now, this flight was one of the later flights, and the rest of the airport was not overly crowded at this point. In fact, in that area alone there are an additional 12 gates that could have been used. When I got to the gate, there was a delay and I was standing next to the airline representative. Another flyer mentioned how busy and claustrophobic the area was, and the representative replied that it was always like that at 11pm; “The rush” he joked. I asked why they did not spread out the flights and he replied “Because that is just the way it is scheduled everyday” in an uninterested tone. I suggested that he mentions to his superiors that perhaps there may be a better way, to which he shrugged and said that it really wasn’t his job. He did not care.

Customer service can’t always deliver solutions, but it can always deliver empathy.

In this case– this particular customer service representative failed. He did not realize that customer emotions cannot be ignored. Remember that customers have choices on where they spend their money, and this type of indifferent interaction will lead to a customer quitting your company 68% of the time.

We’ve all had bad customer service experiences, and (hopefully) we’ve all had great ones too. There are a number of differences, and they all stem from the presence of empathy. Roughly 80% of the time, service representatives don’t even ask for a customer’s name. That’s an easy way to say, “I don’t care about you or your problem.”

Great service—the kind where a service representative exudes personality, makes helpful suggestions beyond your initial question, and celebrates your success with you—happens because the employee actually cares about the outcome. They know what you’re going through and understand the impact the problem is having on your day. Empathy from the representative aligns them with the customer’s pain, so they are motivated to do all they can to ease it.

Before you can expect your customer service representatives to show empathy to customers, they need to understand exactly what empathy is. Empathy is not sympathy, where you simply feel bad about someone’s situation without doing anything about it. Empathy is not restricted to problem-solving, since a frustrated customer will want his or her feelings acknowledged before he or she is ready to accept your solution. Instead, empathy is the art of understanding and acknowledging a customer’s feelings and needs, before finding a solution that meets them. When a customer feels understood, and cared about, he or she is better prepared to work with your company over the long haul.

By putting yourself in the shoes of a customer, you also get context that helps you do your job: “I know how horrible a long day of flying is like, I have had the same experience myself. I will definitely suggest that to my superiors, and here is a link to our website so that you can also write in. We care about you, and want you to keep flying with us” would have been the preferred response in my own personal case.

Is empathy something that is teachable? Some people are naturally more empathetic than others, and it’s absolutely something companies should hire for in customer service. However, it is also teachable. Since empathy ultimately comes from understanding another person’s experience, the easiest way for a representative to develop empathy is to use the product or service themselves. Focus groups, customer visits, comment cards or customer on-sites are also great ways to see through the eyes of a customer.

Listening is another critical element to empathy. Service representatives should be able to pick up on a customer’s tone and sense the level of stress, anger, or frustration. Instead, people just don’t listen to one another, they simply take turns speaking. We all tend to be more interested in announcing our own views and experiences than really taking the time to listen and understand others. This is ironic since we all like to be listened to and understood. Using the proper tone when responding to the customer is key. Your mom knew what she was saying when she told you “It’s not what you say, it is how you say it!”

Studies have shown that people judge an experience based on its most intense point and its end.  In customer service, that means ending each interaction on a high note so customers come away feeling great. That may mean solving the problem or it may not. I have personally had experiences where the service rep was unable to accommodate my request, but I still came away with a good feeling because I know that employee did everything he or she could, and they left me feeling like they genuinely cared about helping.

Alethea Porter
Regional Training Account Manager
Phone: 403-461-6590

Alethea Porter

Signature Canada is a leader in training employees to deliver legendary customer service while increasing sales. Since 1986, Signature’s unique training methodology has provided a measurable ROI for our customers, compelling them to return year after year. We offer Canadian companies, personalized, sustainable and measurable business and training solutions which contribute to optimize income by developing sales and service skills dedicated to create memorable experiences.