Old-School Empathy is Still “In” for Agent / Customer Interactions

Our customers judge us on many moments of truth: timeliness, follow-up, accuracy, solving their problems and of course how we engage with them and make them feel valued.

Empathy is a key soft skill for anyone in a service or sales role who manages customer interactions. Unfortunately empathy is a skill that doesn’t come easy for many. It is also challenging for us to coach since it requires more than just asking an agent to “be more empathetic” or handing an agent empathetic phrases to read when needed.

Saying empathetic words without meaning is as bad as not saying anything at all. Our phone customers are judging us on our tone as well as the word choices we make. And, yes… our customers need to have empathy from us in written interactions too, such as emails and chats.

Both verbal and written communications with customers are difficult for some agents to personalize due to time constraints they feel management has imposed. Some of our agents may think empathy isn’t a big deal as long as the customer gets business taken care of.

I’m dealing with this personally now as a customer of a young sales rep who is very engaging in person, but who loses his soft skills during our email interactions.

He wanted me to sign off on something that I had questions and concerns about. I expressed my concerns in an email to him and did not hear back. I emailed again a couple of days later and he finally responded without any acknowledgement or apology for his late reply.

He answered my questions accurately in his email but curtly and ended with this sentence: “I hope that answers everything.”

Given his delayed response and lack of apology, I translated it to say, “Don’t bother me again with your stupid questions!” He might not have meant it but the tone of his email was lacking any empathy or concern for my situation.

Another great example of the empathy miss is this email sent by an accounting clerk at a major hotel chain a month after a hotel stay. The customer was a frequent travel member with this chain and thought this might be a scam email based on what was written. He had to call to confirm it was really from this hotel:

“I am writing to inform you that during your stay at the (hotel), your bill was left unsettled…. The MasterCard did not swipe correctly and is coming up as invalid. Please fill out the credit card authorization attached to settle your account”

No salutation, no cordial greeting, no thanks for your business and then a request to email personal information to a stranger a month after the hotel stay. Clearly no understanding how a customer would feel receiving such a cold and strange message that ended up causing more work for the customer.

How can we help our agents to avoid the verbal and written empathy pitfalls? I have a few suggestions for your empathy discussions:

“Put yourself in their place” role-play

Role-play is often passed over in favor of just talking about the skill. Depending on the agent’s mode of learning, the practice of skills during role-play often brings better long-term and quicker results.

First give them a scenario that requires empathy and then ask the agent what they think the customer might be feeling in that type of situation. Ask them to look at the situation from the customer’s point of view and then have them role-play as the customer first and then as the agent with you switching roles with them. Try doing this over the phone to make it more realistic instead of face to face.

Have the “right” written tone

Provide them with scenarios requiring empathy but don’t tell them that specifically and ask them to respond as they normally would in written form. Then demonstrate for them how to use their writing tone to combine with the words to sound more interested in the customer situation. Discuss how that interest translates to empathy.

Make a list of empathy benefits with your agents and discuss

You may already have something like this as a part of your training or you may need to create. Review these benefits during coaching with your experienced and new agents to make sure they are in agreement:

  • Prevents many escalations and complaints
  • Negative social media blasts avoided
  • Customer easier to communicate with
  • Positives back from customers
  • Retains customers which means continued revenue for the company, center and employee opportunities
  • Increases sales opportunities

Developing empathetic agents can have profound results on overall customer experience. Just as we train and coach our agents to manage customer interactions related to products, support, upsell opportunities, etc., building an empathetic workforce takes time. Here is another place where you must leverage your agent and supervisor time to provide opportunities to grow in this area.

Regardless of the type of business we have, the customers we sell to or provide service for, and the technology or channels we use, empathy is one skill that never goes out of style.

About the author

Since 1983, Melissa has partnered with Contact Centers and Retail Teams to help them develop strategies, operational processes and skills to successfully blend People, Process and Technology for Customer Experience success.

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