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  • Writer's pictureKirk Dunn

4 Ways Customer Service Agents Can Leverage Empathy To Build Better Customer Relationships

Updated: Aug 1, 2023

Upset customer

Empathy is key to quickly and efficiently addressing the concerns of upset clients and building the rapport essential to achieving top-quality customer service.

In today’s market, the power of a company’s brand rests solely on the shoulders of its customers. A brand will flourish when customers promote the company to their friends and families (“Promoters”). Conversely, a brand will flounder when customers go out of their way to deter others from doing business with you (“Detractor”).

Here are four guideposts your customer service representatives can follow to stay on track in delivering an outstanding customer experience:

1. Be compassionate: acknowledge the emotion you hear.

For an upset or frustrated client saying, “I can understand that would be frustrating. Let me see what I can do, will make the person feel heard, help them calm down, and is a good solid step toward building rapport.

And when positive emotions are involved, we can strengthen our connection with the caller with a simple “Congratulations!” or “You must be thrilled!”. This sort of empathy makes the client feel acknowledged, important, and rewarded.

With positive emotions, empathy can build the kind of customer relationship that makes people think of your company in a promoter fashion.

For call center training / e-learning related to this topic that can be customized for your unique environment, take a look at VereQuest's Check-Up Program and then let's talk!

Empathy essentially puts you in someone else’s position – to see things from their point of view. So, it stands to reason that if the person you are speaking with is upset, then (when you really empathize with them) you will become upset too. This is not about becoming a raving maniac. This is about sharing some of the emotions of the person you are talking with. This has two pay-offs:

  1. The customer will feel heard and understood and will calm down.

  2. You will be inspired to take action to put an end to the uncomfortable situation you are now experiencing right along with the customer.

In effect, you will receive your emotional “marching orders.” You will find yourself thinking, “This is unacceptable. What can I do to change this?” Next thing you know, you will find yourself owning the problem and over-delivering with a solution that impresses the customer.

It isn’t good enough to just throw in a “That’s got to be frustrating” or “How exciting for you!” whenever you think about it. For empathy to work for you, it must be expressed immediately (at the moment the ‘clue’ is heard), and it must be perceived* to be genuine. When the expression of empathy is timely, the customer is able to relax a little bit, and you can begin to build rapport. If you wait until the end of the call to express empathy, you lose the opportunity to leverage this valuable relationship-building tool – and risk further exasperating the client.

*We recognize that it can be challenging to be ‘engaged’ with every call, all day, every time, and every situation. The important thing to remember is that you must sound genuine, remembering that this is likely the customer’s first call to your company today.

2. Be genuine: don’t read from a script.

It’s tempting to have some rehearsed empathetic statements ready to go if they’re needed, but unfortunately, they run the risk of sounding disingenuous. The phrase, “I apologize for the inconvenience,” for example, has been used by customer service reps so often that it has been robbed of virtually all meaning.

It’s best to have your call center agent respond as specifically as possible by reflecting back the words the customer uses. Something like “Yes. I hear you: you’ve called four times, and now you’re pretty upset.”

3. Listen for clues.

Introducing empathy into a call is pretty straightforward when a client is obviously experiencing negative emotions. However, to throw a bit of a curveball into the mix, there are some situations in which the client’s true emotion is hidden or not readily apparent.

You don’t need to ‘hear’ the emotion to recognize that it is likely there. Transactions or situations that are, by their very nature, frustrating, inconvenient, a hassle, or stressful open up opportunities to express empathy. These situations may be a regular, everyday event for you but are unusual, annoying, and frustrating for the client. So, while the client may sound fine when he says he can’t access his online account, some empathy will still go a long way: “That’s got to be frustrating. I apologize for that inconvenience. I can certainly take care of that for you right now.”

The use of empathy connects you with the customer and demonstrates to them that you are prioritizing their needs over the administrative requirements of the job. The client feels respected and honored, rapport is built, and you will be on the way to creating an advocate for your brand.

A caller may not sound annoyed, but are they relating an experience that clearly involved some degree of frustration? If the call is about something as simple as a password reset, we can safely assume that the customer has already made a number of failed attempts, tried to remember the password, searched for where they may have written it down, and are likely dialing in as a last resort.

4. Apologize: it costs you nothing.

Just because your call center agent apologizes, it doesn’t mean they’re admitting culpability. A quick “I’m sorry that happened” can go a long way to making a caller feel heard and understood and in no way shoulders the blame for the issue at hand.

The path followed by a conversation with an emotional customer can be tricky and circuitous. By keeping these empathy guideposts in sight, your call center agent will have an easier time reaching their destination: a top-notch customer experience.

Empathy in Customer Service: Conclusion

After several hours of handling customer problems, it is often difficult to remember that you are speaking with a person and not just an ‘account.’ When you are able to express empathy – in a genuine way – the customer will have no option but to see you as a supporter and not an adversary. And this has got to make your life a little easier!

The greatest obstacle to empathy is overcoming our natural inclination to avoid conflict and to stay away from uncomfortable situations. To truly empathize is to make a brave choice. It is to wade into the muck, to lift some of the emotional load onto your own shoulders, and say, “Here, let me help.”

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VEREQUEST is a consulting firm specializing in driving and sustaining the quality of the customer experience in the contact center environment. We help our clients, each a leading organization in N.A., to strive to win the hearts and loyalty of customers through a wide range of proprietary tools and techniques.

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