Empathy is big nowadays.
All the customer service reps are trained to be empathetic. They are told to put themselves in the shoes of the caller, and experience the problem from the callers point of view. And – full disclosure here – as a trainer of customer service personnel I admit I’ve been guilty of recommending to CSRs that they shoe-horn some sort of empathetic statement into every interaction. If you just let them know that you’re feeling a bit of what they’re feeling, I tell them, that irate caller will calm down, that frustrated customer will stop yelling, that distant and cold person on the other end of the line will not want to talk to your manager.
But sometimes, empathy doesn’t work. Calmer heads do not prevail and the yelling continues. Why is that? I would say it’s because empathy is not a solution.
Empathy doesn’t really solve anything. And when we think of it as a silver bullet that will solve a problem all by itself, we get into trouble. Empathy works as a step along the path to resolution. When my email account refused to collect mail, I spent a good twenty minutes trying solve the problem on my own. All I succeeded in doing was making myself frustrated. By the time I called my provider, I was well and truly steamed. When I sounded off to the CSR who took my call, she completely disarmed me with “that’s no good! That’s the kind of thing that ruins your day. Let me see what I can do to get you going again.” It felt like she totally understood what I was going through, and she fixed my problem. It felt great.
Now, to be honest, the best part of the interaction was that she fixed my problem. She said something empathetic, then she took some action. But while the action was the biggest mood changer for me, the empathy helped. It was a boost: it turned a good call into an exceptional call. Which brings up an interesting question; how would empathy have worked if she wasn’t able to fix my problem?
Empathy on its own, as a stand alone emotional band-aid sort of fix, is a no-go. A CSR from our cable company once said to me “Yeah, sorry about that. That sounds upsetting.” And that was all. No help, no offer to shake the trees to see what else could be done, who else may be available to take a crack at my issue. It was like a pat on the head with the hope I would hang up so he could move on to his next call. But when paired with some genuine effort — even when no solution is possible – empathy can salvage a potential customer service failure and send a customer away feeling acknowledged and respected.
When I complained to my insurance company that our policy was of questionable value because it didn’t cover any of my family’s significant dental work, I had a very skilled Rep tell me that she knew exactly how I felt, having been through the same situation herself. She talked about the plans above mine, how much extra they would cost on a monthly basis, and the balance I would need to strike between the price of the new coverage, and the likelihood that I would need it. Needing more time to mull over my options, I left the call with exactly the same problem I started it with (not enough dental coverage), but I felt valued and heard, not brushed off by a take-it-or-leave it offer presented by someone (or some company) that really didn’t care about me at all.
And there it is. That’s what empathy does. Paired with the ownership of my problem and some action taken on my behalf, empathy makes me, the customer, feel better about the company with whom I’ve chosen to do business. And while empathy didn’t solve my problem with my family’s dental bill, it was a big part of how I ended up with better coverage.
Kirk Dunn, VP Customer Experience at VereQuest
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