Empathy is the Ultimate Customer Service Secret. Here are 3 Empathy Essentials You Need in Your Competitive Arsenal Empathy can be learned, and these three empathy essentials are a great place to start.
- Empathy is essential in customer service, but it isn't always enough.
- Your organization must embody the empowered behavior that being empathetic can require.
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A missing ingredient in your customer service approach — I'm going to hazard to guess — is empathy. If you infuse empathy into your customer service via customer service training and the other elements I'll discuss below, you'll be on your way to success, loyalty and ambassadorship by building customers up to the point that they'll go out of their way to sing your company's praises, online and off, due to the remarkable customer service experience they've had.
But how do you build an empathetic workforce, particularly in your customer-facing positions?
One approach that's good on paper but difficult to implement is to hire individuals with an innate knack for empathy, especially for roles involving direct customer interaction. A certain strain of empathy naturally exists as a personality trait. It tends to remain relatively fixed throughout adulthood (it's called "trait-based empathy" in psychology), except for a few exceptional cases.
Generally, you don't have the ability (or desire) to replace your customer-facing team with individuals specifically selected for empathy traits.
And, of course, you want results now.
So, what's the solution? It lies in training your current employees in a simpler but equally valuable form of empathy: situational empathy. With this approach, you will focus on cultivating empathy in the moments that matter to your customers and your business. In a customer service context, I've renamed this (perhaps uncreatively) as customer service-specific empathy.
Customer service-specific empathy can be acquired and strengthened through various training methods, such as live training or eLearning programs. At my firm, we've found that offering customer service eLearning courses works out particularly well for our client businesses: The power of eLearning is in part in its ability to incorporate video-based scenarios that effectively demonstrate and even stimulate empathy in the specific scenario being shown.)
Irrespective of the type of external training you consider or whether you opt for a do-it-yourself (DIY) approach, it helps to understand what the training needs to convey and the organizational support required for it to make a difference.
1. Customer cues
Perhaps the most fundamental empathy-building skill that customer service empathy training needs to convey is to pick up on — and appropriately respond to — cues from your customer. But not just any cues.
Hearing a customer's dog bark and saying, "Oh, Ms. X, I love dogs too! What breed of dog do you have?" is fine but not next-level. The big wins come when you focus on cues that hold significance to the customer.
The best-trained Zappos customer service employees are particularly adept at this.
My favorite Zappos example is watching a well-trained agent receive a call from a customer who is frustrated in her attempts to find a comfortable shoe for an upcoming family wedding. The Zappos employee quickly zeroes in on the most important cue buried in the information the customer pours on in their first interaction: the customer is frustrated by how hard it is to find a fit specifically for her narrow feet.
She commiserates immediately — and emphatically! — that "narrows" are challenging to find, expressing solidarity as she mentions her aunt, who also struggles with narrow feet. This connection establishes a rapport between the customer service agent and her customer, offering a renewed sense of hope regarding comfortable footwear for the upcoming event. While still on the call, the two of them co-browse for options and find a new, suitable pair of dressy shoes that are also likely to be a good fit and pain-free for a long day on her feet.
2. Bridging the empathy gap
The concept of "bridging the empathy gap" in customer service is crucial, especially when serving customers whose life situations are significantly different from those of your employees. This disparity can be particularly pronounced when catering to high-net-worth individuals (HNWIs). The vast difference in economic and lifestyle realities between HNWIs and your staff can lead to an empathy gap, which may affect the quality of service provided.
Moreover, it's important to consider domestic and global contexts when serving international customers. With uneven economic conditions and political situations at home and abroad, customers' business and personal realities in disparate regions may be quite different from your employees.
3. Empathy and empowered behavior
Empathy is essential in customer service, but it isn't always enough. Your organization needs to be supporting the empowered behavior that being empathetic can require. Here's one of my favorite examples of empowered and empathetic behavior that didn't cost the company a penny but required management to be open to a creative application of empathy.
Picture this: A dog rushes up to the reception desk of the Hyatt House hotel in Virginia. (The Hyatt House brand is intended as an "extended stay" hotel experience particularly suitable for guests with more than a couple nights' need.)
Without missing a beat, the front desk agent tosses a rolled newspaper into the eager mouth of the dog, who then trots off happily, mission accomplished. The agent resumes his work, ready for the next guest.
Here's the backstory: The dog's owner had unhappily sold her home after 40 years and was temporarily staying at the Hyatt House while transitioning to an empty nester. The front desk agent had been helping maintain some semblance of her routine from her previous life by helping her dog maintain his: Each morning, her dog would fetch the newspaper from the front desk and bring it back to their room, just like it would from the end of the driveway at its prior home.
But, your organization must support and empower its workers for empathy to become action.
This story underscores how individual customer circumstances can significantly influence their perception of your services. It also highlights the power of empathetic customer service. But, most of all, perhaps, it highlights how essential organizational support is to customer service empathy. If the leadership of Hyatt House had clamped down on the creative efforts of this fabulous front-desk agent, the entire scenario would never have happened–or would have been nipped in the bud after the first day or two.