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  • Sharon Oatway

How to Leverage Empathy to Build Better Customer Relationships

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

BTW: Empathy Hurts ... and Also Feels Good

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”).

“Empathy is the reflection of the emotional content of what you hear.”

We usually think of empathy as only being appropriate when we’re confronted with negative emotions; however, empathy can also fulfill that same forward-movement function when positive emotions are involved.

The single most prevalent behavior we hear in Detractor calls is a failure to empathize with customers – more frequent than not taking ownership or deferring responsibility for problems, and even more frequent than not being able to resolve the customer’s problem in the first place.

Empathy Hurts

For an upset or frustrated client, someone who’s been the victim of fraud, been through a customer service nightmare, or had some hard luck, the use of empathy makes the person feel heard, helps them calm down and is a good solid step toward building rapport.

For example, for a client who is upset over a delay of some kind, you might say “I can understand that would be frustrating. Let me see what I can do.”

Here, empathy is used to acknowledge the emotion, which makes the client feel heard and understood. The client can now begin to let go of that frustration and move away from the problem, toward a possible solution. The future is looking better.

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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.

And fear not, it’s not all about pain. Because sometimes...

Empathy Feels Good

If someone has something good happening in his/her life (new home purchase, a big vacation, a new baby, a child in university), empathizing with them is a lot of fun. You have the chance to share pride, excitement, hopes for a bright future.

For example, a student is calling to set-up a University as a bill payment. Right after a confident can-do statement, a “Congratulations!” is in order. The client feels acknowledged, important, and understood. And the call moves forward from being just another administrative necessity to being a reaffirmation of a rite of passage. With positive emotions, empathy can build the kind of rapport that makes people think of your company in a positive way and want to tell others about it.

The double pay-off here is similar to the previous situation:

  1. The customer will feel rewarded and befriended.

  2. You will have the opportunity to cement the relationship between the customer and yourself (as a representative of your company), build memorable rapport, and possibly even provide some lift to make their good news better.

You will find yourself helping this person not because you have to, but because you want to. You may leave this sort of call grinning like an idiot. And who doesn’t want that?

Situational Empathy

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.

Timing is Everything

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, 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.

Make It Happen

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 the 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.”

It is not easy. But it is the genesis of turning passive customers into advocates for your brand. You will have to work for them. Empathy is the catalyst, the spark plug, of that work.

Originally posted in 2018


Sharon Oatway is President & Chief Experience Officer of VereQuest. Sharon is a Customer Service, Sales, and Marketing professional with more than three decades of hands-on experience elevating the overall customer experience along with multi-channel contact center performance. Sharon and her team at VereQuest have listened to/read and analyzed several million customer interactions for some of North America’s leading brands. As a result, Sharon is a recognized thought-leader in what it takes to build and sustain great customer experiences.

Established in 2002, VereQuest provides organizations with a wide range of customer experience services including a robust contact center quality monitoring offering. Working with businesses throughout North America, VereQuest provides a unique perspective on a complex, ever-changing customer environment.

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