A guide to empathy in customer service

A Guide to Empathy in Customer Service

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“I’m constantly blown away at how appreciative people are when they get human replies. Years of uncaring or even hostile support experiences have set the bar low for their expectations that they get excited by genuine answers.”

Micah Bennett, Zapier

What is the one skill that everybody in customer support must have?

Ask this to anybody who’s been in customer support for a while and ‘Empathy’ would be high up on the list.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of another. It is the act of putting yourself in others’ shoes and seeing a problem from their point of view.

In customer service, empathy is the ability to have a human interaction with a customer. If you take a look at some of the spectacular customer service failures, you will see that they involve a (maddening) lack of empathy.

Being empathetic towards someone doesn’t mean that you are agreeing with them. It just means that you understand their truth. It is an important character trait for support agents to have because they have to talk to many different kinds of customers every day, solve their problems, all the while making sure that they are representing the company in the best way possible.


Advantages of empathizing

You may wonder why it is important to spend time and effort empathizing with a single customer when you can use that time to efficiently solve multiple customer issues.

There are many benefits to expressing empathy apart from moving the bottom line which is ‘making customers happy’. 

A better understanding of people: Customer support is all about people. If you understand your people better, you can support better. And practicing empathy every day will help you do that.

Noticing things that are unsaid: Customers need not have to spell out their needs and feelings. Based on their situation, body-language, voice, and tone, you will be able to guess what motivated them to approach you, what is at stake for them and how they are feeling.

Dealing easily with conflicts: When you understand what is unsaid, you can address it and make customers feel heard – which is the first step towards resolving conflicts.

Invoking empathy from customers: There are a lot of hard conversations in customer support. Saying no to customers or telling them that they need to pay your more to use a feature is hard enough. In such cases, lack of empathy will make the customer mistrust your intentions. But when you are able to understand their motivation and point of view, it gets much easier to gain their trust and convince them of yours.

Predicting action and reaction: You will be able to predict a customer’s follow up questions and proactively answer them. You will be able to predict what they will feel when they read your answer. You will also be able to understand what is holding them back from implementing an alternate solution. Knowing these things will make the conversation much easier.


Identifying an empathy problem

You would have noticed that some customer service interactions make you feel happy even when you don’t end up getting what you wanted. Chances are, you were lucky enough to talk to a particularly empathetic team or person.

But those instances are rare. A lot of individual support agents, teams and even organizations suffer from a lack of empathy. Some classic signs are:

  • Tone mismatch between the agent and the customer – One of them is too formal and the other too informal.
  • Late responses are sent without apologies.
  • Customers being discouraged from contacting support, through words and behavior.
  • Agents with the Somebody Else’s Problem syndrome – That is, issues getting deflected to other departments without any explanations or follow-ups.
  • Lack of customer satisfaction – There is no bigger sign of lack of empathy than the customer being unhappy even after getting what they want.

If you notice any of the above signs in your team’s interactions with customers, you might have an empathy problem at hand.

Not everybody is lucky enough to be born with a capacity for endless empathy. But the good news is, empathy, like any other skill, can be learned.


Bonus material: Enroll in the Freshdesk Academy to download a list of Empathy statements you can use while talking to customers ? Enroll for free


How to cultivate empathy?

Everybody has a degree of empathy and anybody can develop and cultivate their empathy using the following ways.

Understand your biases

We instinctively make judgments based on language, color, gender, religion, accent, and vocabulary. We do not notice when we are acting out of bias but it makes us treat some customers differently than others.

For example, assuming that a customer would not be tech-savvy because they are older and blaming them for the issue they are facing is because of our bias. This bias creates a barrier between agents and customers.

To cultivate empathy, you need to recognize your biases. Every time you assume something about someone when there is no data to support it, contemplate and find out if that was because of a bias.

Reading fiction and other activities you can do

Reading fiction is a proven technique to increase empathy. If you are not a big reader, meeting different kinds of people will also help cultivate empathy. You can have a goal of meeting one new person every day. Each person will give you a different perspective and open up your world a little bit more.

Other activities that are generally said to increase empathy are volunteering, playing role-playing games, or even taking acting classes where you are quite literally walking in someone else’s shoes.

Maintain positivity

Being empathetic to the first customer of the day is easy. But to treat the last customer in the same way you treated the first customer, you need to remain positive and motivated.

A good way to stay positive is by observing yourself for a week and noting down the times you feel a positive or a negative emotion and the events that trigger it. This will give you a clear idea of what activities to avoid when you have to remain positive to get through the day.

Understand your customer base

When you don’t understand where the customer is coming from, it’s easy to think that they are overreacting to a simple problem. It’s hard to mask those thoughts and act as if you are empathetic. To cross that barrier, you need to figure out who your customers are and what your product or service means to them. In the context of their educational background, age, company, organization structure, etc, you can really bridge the gap and cultivate empathy.

Get feedback from your peers and customers

Sometimes, it’s very hard to objectively look at the way you deal with customers. So at the end of a conversation, you can ask your customers open-ended questions like “What do you think would have made this conversation better?”. If your customers complain about not being heard or respected, then you know that it is an empathy problem.

Similarly, you can ask a peer who gets along well with customers for their opinion on the way you talk to them. The important thing to remember here is to receive the feedback with an open mind.

Teach

Another good way to cultivate empathy is by teaching. Whether it’s just teaching your kid how to swim or a friend how to juggle, teaching requires a lot of patience and practice. If you get an opportunity to teach about the product or service you support to your new colleague, take it up immediately. You will be able to see what new customers struggle with. You will see how each person understands things differently. This will add to your perspective and it will increase your ability to feel empathy.


How can you express empathy?

Expressing empathy is as important as cultivating it. Customers need to know that you do understand how they feel through words, body language and other cues depending on how the conversation is happening. Here are some points to keep in mind to successfully express empathy:

Actively listen

Let your customers talk and actively listen to what they are saying. Do not jump to conclusions. Do not offer a solution before they can finish telling you about the problem. Let them finish talking and respond with the same words they used. Sometimes customers want to vent. Half of their issue will be solved once they feel heard.

Keep your attitude in check

Your job is not to be right. Your job is to help the customer. Whenever you have the urge to blame a customer for their mistake, take the high road without expecting their apology. This is not to say that you should let them walk all over you. You can be empathetic and stand your ground when you deal with abusive or difficult customers.

Give people the benefit of doubt

If it feels like the customer is overreacting to something, understand that it’s not personal. Maybe they are having a bad day, maybe their job depends on this issue, maybe they have a personal problem. You might not be able to pinpoint what’s bothering them but give them the benefit of the doubt.  Always work under the assumption that this interaction is going to make their day better. Actively practice giving second chances.

Make customers a part of the solution 

There are times you think the customer is being unreasonable. Your product or service might not have been built to solve that customer’s problem but they might be expecting it. In such cases, ask them what they think the right solution is. This will give them a chance to put themselves in your shoes instead of being against you.

Be curious about your customer 

Customers hate being treated like they have been figured out when they never had a chance to explain. Expressing curiosity about what the customer is doing and how they came to face that particular problem will go a long way. Once they go from being on the offensive to revealing helpful information, they become much easier to talk to.

Look for common interests 

Take some effort to build a bond with customers. Did you notice that their desktop image is that of your favorite band? Bring it up in your conversation. Both you and your customer will find that you can understand each other better when you have more in common than you thought.

Always be respectful

Always greet the customer with their name. It’s easy to forget manners when the conversation is taking a bad turn and has been going on for a long time. Even as you are standing up for yourself, remember to not put them down.

Be extra careful when there is a language barrier 

You can always assume that when you are talking to someone who comes from a different culture or country, some things will be lost in translation. So be extra careful in those situations, and try to make yourself as clear as possible. You can even use emojis to express your real emotion if it comes down to it.

Respond to the customer’s tone 

Replying to a customer’s excited email with a formal boilerplate is the worst thing you can do. So always respond to the customer’s tone. You don’t have to give up your own or your company’s personality in the process. Just have a formal-informal scale which you are comfortable with and pick a tone that’s between that scale.

Do not assume, ask

Do not assume that customers would not know the simplest solution. Don’t tell them to refresh their screens or reboot their phones assuming they would not have done it. Always ask them if they have already done that and show that you are willing to troubleshoot further.  If you assume, not only will the resolution be delayed, the customer will also feel like they are being rushed.

Take their side when they are right 

Don’t be afraid to take their side. When they are right and the fault is on your company’s side, go ahead and say “You’re right. We messed up.” Customers will respect you and your company for it. They will understand that you truly value your customers’ opinions.

Avoid sympathy

The most important thing to remember when you are expressing empathy is to avoid sympathy. Instead of saying “That must be frustrating”, try saying “I understand how frustrating that is.” Being more personal also helps. Instead of saying “The team will resolve this issue soon”, try saying “I am working with the team to solve this issue soon”. These tiny changes in the way you express empathy will go a long way in making the customer feel valued.


Bonus material: Enroll in the Freshdesk Academy today to download a list of Empathy statements you can use while talking to customers ? Enroll for free


Expressing empathy as a company

Empathy flows from the top down. When the leadership is customer-focused and empathetic, the employees are more likely to do what is right for the customer too. Most of the horrible customer support stories are rarely about the individual support rep involved. It’s a reflection of the company’s culture.

Empathy and freedom go hand in hand. If you lead a company or manage a team, encourage your support agents to break rules now and then to do what is right for the customer. Some companies even provide a small budget for each support team member so they have the freedom to go above and beyond whenever necessary.


You cannot always deliver the right solution but you can always deliver a human interaction. Let’s start being more empathetic towards customers and each other and make the world a better place.

What are your thoughts on empathy in customer service? Let me know in the comments section.

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