Sympathy vs. Empathy ... and why empathy matters
Updated: Jan 26, 2021
At VereQuest, we’ve been listening to calls and reading emails and chat sessions for over 18 years now – in an effort to help companies keep the promises they make to their customers and employees. We first discovered the role EMPATHY plays in conversations – in an analytical way – around 2009. At the beginning of 2020, 11 years later, it remained the #1 opportunity in companies today -- regardless of the industry.
Then the coronavirus changed everything, and it certainly wasn’t business as usual. The pandemic disrupted our lives and our businesses at a level most of us have not experienced before. The shift we have seen in human behavior, in general, has been far from normal. In the Spring of 2020, new research came out that identified that “brands that embrace innovation and agility with an aim on humanizing the customer’s experience, will outperform their peers.” That is something that those of us who work in the customer service industry have known for decades.
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There is no question that empathy matters more now than ever before. The business environment we work in today – and in the foreseeable future – has changed and will never be the same. Being customer-centric is no longer just a catch-phrase -- it is a business imperative. And demonstrating empathy at each point of contact lets customers know you are serious about it.
There are so many misconceptions about what empathy is. Put simply, empathy is the ability to put yourself in another person’s situation and be able to say to “I can relate to what you are feeling”. We often refer to this as ‘walking a mile in someone else’s shoes’.
To have empathy is to understand -- not just the facts of what someone is experiencing -- but also their feelings about it. When it comes to COVID, we can all relate to the feelings and experiences. However, to feel and express empathy, we don’t need to have had the same experiences. We just need to attempt to better understand the other person’s perspective.
Within a contact center, empathy lets the customer know that you understand how they FEEL about a situation. And because you understand, you are going to do for them what you would do for yourself given the same circumstances. That’s a powerful message.
Often this will mean understanding or relating to negative emotions like frustration, anger, disappointment, fear, sadness, suspicion, or confusion. When you respond to a frustrated or upset caller with empathy, the customer will feel heard and understood and will often calm down -- which will make it easier for you to gain control of the conversation.
Empathy will also mean connecting to positive emotions like happiness, joy, surprise, excitement, or relief. If the customer is talking about a new grandchild or getting ready to leave on an exciting vacation, you can share in their pride, excitement, or joy. Your caller is going to feel befriended, appreciated, and supported... and that is going to build greater engagement along with a real human connection.
The other thing we need to be clear about is the difference between empathy and sympathy. Both empathy and sympathy express concern for another person’s well-being and are often used interchangeably -- but they are quite different. When you understand someone else’s situation and the emotions that come with it -- as if they were your own – you are expressing empathy. Empathy is a shared experience.
Sympathy, on the other hand, is all about YOU. When you sympathize with someone, you are not attempting to relate to or understand their feelings. We often hear sympathy in the form of an apology – something we hear so frequently and in such an insincere way that it usually doesn’t even register anymore. On the other hand, when you follow up that apology with empathy, you create an entirely different experience. It’s the difference between “I’m sorry that happened to you… ” and “I’m sorry that happened to you. I can imagine how frustrating that must be.” ‘I’m sorry’ is a great start, but following up with empathy is what makes your apology meaningful to the customer.
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