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How does empathy influence customer service - and what is working well?


Following his recent appearance as a panellist on MyCustomer's live roundtable discussing empathy in service, Peter Dorrington digs deeper into how organisations embed empathy. 

20th Aug 2020

In customer service, empathy is the ability to have meaningful interactions with your customers (or employees) – to connect with their feelings (even if you are unable to resolve their problem).

Being empathetic towards someone doesn’t mean that you always have to agree with them - it also means being able to say 'no', or to take actions that you know they may dislike, but to do so with as much compassion as possible. To be humane.

In a recent virtual roundtable, hosted by MyCustomer’s Neil Davey, together with CX Punk Adrian Swinscoe, GenesysDr. Natalie Petuhouff and me, we discussed the role of empathy in service interactions. This article reflects the discussions within that roundtable and some of my own thoughts on the subject.

Context: The rise of the ‘Covid-customer’

The recent crisis has undoubtedly impacted the mindset of many people. In 2019, short-term consumer confidence was high, which was reflected in high levels of spending. At the same time, the UK government was already talking about an end to austerity and economic stimulus. That all changed at the end of March with the spread of coronavirus. The infection and death rate started to grow steeply, the government announced the lockdown and started to put in place measures to protect businesses and jobs.

By May, much of the populace were showing increased levels of uncertainty about both their physical health and financial futures, which resulted in a heightened sense of anxiety. At the same time, it was increasingly difficult to interact with businesses, compounding the levels of stress that customers were feeling. Even small challenges started to take on greater importance – just one more thing to worry about – and stressed people are not always reasonable or wholly logical and that can make them difficult to serve.

In this context, access to - and the quality of - customer services takes on new meaning. With much of the buying cycle being handled digitally or with very little human interaction, it is in the area of customer service that many organisations find their only opportunities to establish ‘traction’ – the service differential that sets you apart from your competitors.

As we exit lockdown, customers have started to expect and demand increasing levels of understanding and engagement; they believe that organisations have now had enough time to address the technical challenges (and they see examples elsewhere of those that have) and want a swift return to a more customer-centric relationship. Furthermore, whilst customers are gradually returning to a calmer mindset, there is still plenty of anxiety and uncertainty around which cannot be ignored.

So, customer service has never been more important. Many customers will require additional emotional support as they adjust to a different reality. It is my contention that those organisations that allow the customer to feel heard and valued will build longer-lasting, more valuable customer relationships for the future.

The value of empathy

There has been a lot of discussion over the last few years (well before the current crisis) about the importance of empathy in business, but what value is there for both your company and your customers in delivering experiences with empathy?

I have come across many organisations, especially service-centric ones, that have associated increased empathy with improved customer satisfaction. But relatively few of them have quantified what the actual impact is in monetary terms.

Alternatively, there is an over-reliance on third-party data / studies to make the business case, or a correlation is used without establishing causation. In some cases, this is because an organisation is trying to optimise / improve multiple things at once and therefore finds it hard to identify specific cause-and-effect relationships.

However, there is a broad canon of research that indicates customers are prepared to pay more for a pleasant experience than just a functionally good one. ‘Pleasant’ is a subjective term that resides in the world of feelings and what is more, the value of an experience is not what happens to you, but how you interpret what happens to you - feelings can have a profound effect on that interpretation. Different customers have different expectations of customer service and may value different aspects of the service – there is no such thing as an ‘average customer’.

In the current climate of uncertainty and anxiety, it is even more difficult for people to make decisions and, human nature being what it is, people who have those feelings will tend to put off making a decision to act – even critical decisions are being deferred. You can use empathic engagement to understand this, establish rapport and to help customers make optimal decisions in a timely manner. This is one of the challenges currently faced by the NHS – patients are putting off coming to hospital for emergency treatment because of anxiety. Those patients need reassurance before treatment.

Businesses, and their customer service agents, that fail to understand the emotional state and needs of their customers are less likely to deliver a ‘satisfying’ customer experience – even if they do meet their practical needs. Yet, during the crisis I’ve witnessed many examples of organisations who are clearly ‘tone deaf’ to the changing needs of their customers – a symptom of a lack of institutional empathy. This can speak volumes to the leadership of those organisations and if the leaders cannot display empathy, it’s not hard to see how that mindset can permeate its way down to the customer-facing staff.

The bottom line is this: being empathetic towards your customers makes good business sense - it can protect revenues, avoid losses and enhance the reputation of the company. Furthermore, it’s a competitive necessity – consumers have figured out that they still have plenty of choice and in a world where digital channels are now a normal way of life, it’s easier than ever to vote with their feet.

Defining what is meant by ‘empathy’

Empathy takes a minimum of two people and is about the nature and depth of the connection between those people – you and your customers. It is not just about the functional aspects of the interaction, but about the meaning and value both sides place upon it.

For the sake of this article, I will define empathy as ‘having the ability to sense another person’s emotions, and to imagine what that person may be thinking or feeling and why’. Empathy is not a synonym for ‘sympathy’ (feeling sorry for someone else), neither is it about being ‘chatty’, or polite, or having a good telephone manner – it is about connecting at an emotional level.

It is widely accepted that there are three types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy – where you have the ability to understand what the other person is feeling (even if you don’t share those feelings).
  • Emotional empathy (aka ‘affective empathy’) – is when you feel what your customer is feeling – it is emotional empathy that is at the heart of making a connection.
  • Compassionate empathy (also known as ‘empathic concern’) – is when you are moved to take action.

Whether you are dealing with a person as just another person, or as a customer – the ultimate expression of empathy is in taking the most compassionate action you can and that reflects the needs of that individual.

Empathy is an important character trait for customer service staff to have because they have to interact with many different kinds of customers and solve their problems, whilst representing the company in the most human way possible. It is through empathy that the customer service agent establishes rapport with the customer.

For businesses, it is cognitive empathy that dictates action – using an understanding of how a customer feels to select an appropriate response (or even proactive action). Expertise in cognitive empathy allows you to develop decision-support models that can be deployed at scale – the models often being embedded within operational systems and processes.

Compassionate empathy at the human level is a natural consequence of emotional empathy. Most of us are born with the ability to empathise but, like a muscle, it needs constant exercise to develop strength. Adrian summed this up well when he discussed an organisation’s ‘empathetic musculature’. However, compassion needs to also reflect operational reality – there is a limit to what can be done for customers, which is where emotional intelligences comes in, and especially social skills.

Emotional intelligence (EQ) and empathy

Empathy is also a component of what is broadly termed 'emotional intelligence', the other components being:

  • Self-awareness - knowing your own feelings, and acknowledging and accepting that feelings (emotions) are part of being human. When you are aware of your own feelings, you can learn to identify those feelings in others and what may cause them.
  • Motivation - being willing (and able) to act in order to achieve goals (this could include achieving a balance between what you and the customer need and that can be delivered in an empathetic way).
  • Self-regulation – the ability to manage your own emotions, which is impossible without self-awareness and motivation but is a vital part of EQ; if you can't temper your own emotions, how can you handle someone else's?
  • Social skills – as well as recognising the feelings of others, you must have the experience and communications skills to both understand what the other person expects, why, and how to resolve any disagreements or misunderstandings.

One reason empathy is so important in a customer service environment is that it is very difficult to use facts and logic alone to counter or deescalate a highly emotional state – to quote Jonathan Swift… “You cannot reason someone out of something they were not reasoned into

How empathy influences customer service

Whilst empathy is important, it is only one factor that determines whether a customer interaction is 'valuable'; others being your competence, price, convenience, etc. When a customer is evaluating a relationship or experience they consider three major aspects:

  • What do I practically need? – these tend to be the things we consciously think about.
  • What do I emotionally want? – whereas these are often subconscious influencers.
  • Who can meet my needs (and wants) the best? – the criteria they use to decide between options.

When using customer service, most people would say that they place competence – getting the job done - above empathy (except when they are feeling psychological distress). But the reality is often different: even if you meet their needs, they may still leave the interaction feeling dissatisfied – they didn’t get something they wanted (or were even aware of wanting).

As I said earlier, there has been a dramatic increase in the interest of businesses in empathy. For some, it is as a result of the genuine desire to lead in serving customers better. For most, it is a reaction to customer demand and competitive pressure. And, for a few, it is a cynical attempt to find ways to influence customer behaviour and sell more ‘stuff’. Whatever your motivation, it is customers who will ultimately decide whether you succeed or fail and, for the latter group, be prepared for an uncomfortable backlash if they discover your attempts to manipulate them.

How organisations deploy empathy

There is no ‘one size fits all’ strategy for introducing empathy into an organisation. But one thing is absolutely clear – its success relies on leadership from the very top.

Enhancing corporate empathy is first and foremost a cultural change, and those don’t come easily; particularly if your current cultural norms (‘the way we do things here’) are significantly different from your ideals (expressed as your values). Nonetheless, the majority of employees already have an innate capability for empathy – they just need the right environment and nurturing to develop 

Here are my recommendations for developing an organisation’s ‘empathetic musculature’:

  1. Create a compelling vision of the future - most organisations are good at creating a vision for the future from which the strategies can be derived, the rational components of change, but cultural change requires more.
  2. Actively involve employees – whilst the change has to be led from the top, it will be employees who will have to make the change. In order to do that, you should engage them in building out and communicating the vision, with a focus on why the change is needed.
  3. Plan and execute – one of the reasons cultural change is so hard is that it takes a lot of time and effort to do. To make the most of your resources, spend some time prioritising your goals and planning how to achieve them (and who will do what).
  4. Make it stick – too many great initiatives fail in the long-term because not enough attention was paid on how to make the change stick. Cultural change is not a project with a specific end point – it will require ongoing reinforcement for it to becomes part of the ‘new normal’ for your organisation.

As well as the ‘big picture’ there are some specific techniques that should be adopted:

  • Active listening - with your customers, your suppliers and your employees. Active listening also requires asking pertinent questions to uncover what is important to your customer and why – including the context.
  • Walk a mile in your customer's shoes – it is hard to empathise with someone if you don’t know what their life is like. You and your staff should take the opportunity to witness first-hand what role your company or product plays in the life of your customer.
  • Acknowledge the need for change – Jim Collins once wrote that ‘good is the enemy of great’, by which he meant that when things are going well, there is often no desire to change. However, it is the customer that ultimately decides if you are doing a good job and they are constantly comparing you with the best experiences available.
  • Lead by example and celebrate the right behaviours – people are influenced by watching what others do and the outcomes they achieve. If they see that you and your leadership colleagues are committed to change and rewarding others that do likewise, they will first accept that the strategy is real and then start to exhibit those same behaviours.
  • Find cultural leaders - especially those that can influence a large group of peers. Whilst it is important to address the concerns of sceptics, it is more powerful to mobilise the willing. Within every organisation, there are employees are willing to make the change themselves and who exert influence over others (irrespective of their position) – enlisting this cadre will pay dividends.

Finally, an associate I spoke to recently said he believes there should be a 'chief empathy officer' - someone tasked with understanding and representing the customer in the boardroom. Whilst I find this an intriguing idea, I am not convinced that this is a good idea – for these reasons:

  • This role could just be a ‘trendy’ job title created to please shareholders.
  • It may lack focus or clearly defined objectives.
  • Or, it could be a role with a lot of responsibility, but no authority (or budget) to affect real change.
  • They become the bottleneck for initiatives that should be owned by the wider workforce.
  • Employees pass the responsibility for customer empathy and satisfaction to the chief empathy officer.

Ultimately, great leadership has to be expressed as great management. It is the managers who put vision and strategy into operational practice – writing job descriptions, conducting performance reviews and dealing with the day-to-day reality of customer service. It is managers that have the greatest influence over employees, especially their direct reports, so special attention must be paid to developing managers.

What has worked so far?

Below are some of the strategies and technologies that I’ve seen the more successful organisations adopt to improve empathy within their service teams:

  • Authenticity – it is hard to establish true empathy without being authentic. Ideally, use your own words and learn how to be informal without being overly-familiar. Also, use natural everyday speech, including contractions ('hi' rather than 'hello').
  • Automation (bots) that use mildly emotive words and phrases within a dialogue and have been developed using ‘design thinking’, with the customer at the centre of the design process. Whilst not pretending to be human, they ‘feel’ more natural.
  • AI-based conversation analysis tools that pick up on emotive cues within dialogues and gives prompts to the agent about how to respond, or the best action to take. Similarly, software that can detects stress, emotion or sentiment in real-time. The same technologies can also be used for post-call evaluation and coaching (which needs a coach who is also very empathic and exhibits high levels of emotional intelligence).
  • Customer-centric business process design, offering flexibility (within a defined scope), rather than rigid rule following (which is an ideal job for automation).
  • Sharing knowledge and insights, whether by storytelling or formal reporting – these can also be used to avoid making assumptions or stereotyping customers, as well as sharing best practice.

During the service interaction itself…

  • Be reassuring – let the customer know that you are listening to their concerns and will work hard to resolve their issue.
  • Take ownership of your mess and commit to delivering on your promise (and soon) – I can remember in a sales training course many years ago being told to ‘never apologise, never admit you are to blame’. Clearly this does not build trust or empathy.
  • Speaking of which, don't let your internal process problems become the customer's problem – it’s frustrating for both parties and is indicative of poor design.
  • Explain what you are doing (without talking down to the customer) – it gives the customer a sense of being involved in the process of finding a solution and being in a partnership. However, do not use any technical jargon - don't assume everyone is as familiar with the subject matter as you. If you can, don't tell them – show them!
  • Ask for feedback (not a score!) at the end and if you met their expectations - I like to ask customers “how would you describe our call today to a stranger?” Typically, the answer will tell you what stood out for the customer and why.
  • Finally, ask if there is anything else you can help them with.

How should an organisation measure ‘empathy’? 

Because establishing rapport and empathy is an important part of how your customer evaluates their experience, and therefore their propensity to repeat it (or advocate on your behalf), it can give you the basis of measurement - what the customer goes on to do in the short or long-term.

There is an old saying "what gets measured, gets managed" - for most businesses that is the case, but here are my concerns:

  • Many businesses measure what is easy to measure and report, not what is meaningful.
  • These measures then get translated into SLAs and KPIs – resulting in only what gets measured gets managed.
  • The measures used are predominantly operational measures (AHT, FCR, cost-per-call, etc.), which works well for standardised tasks, but not necessarily at meeting the needs of individual customers.

The challenge with being empathic is that it takes extra time and training (in emotional intelligence) to establish rapport, and that costs money and customer services already suffers from being labelled a ‘cost centre’. Much better would be a mechanism to measure what does matter to leadership – business impact.

So, the simplest definition of measurement would be 'the impact your organisation has on the emotions of customers". But that is very tenuous (and difficult to do), so I would add "…that quantifiably influences their behaviour and business outcomes".

If you refer to the literature, there are dozens of ways of measuring empathy, for example: Active Listening Observation Scale (ALOS), Balanced Emotional Empathy Scale (BEES), Empathy Quotient (EQ), Positive Empathy Measures (PEM), … – the list goes on (I am aware of over 50 separate measurement systems).

The reality is that there is no perfect tool for measuring empathy - which makes it harder to relate ‘cause’ (being empathic) to ‘effect’ (business results), but you can build models that identify what each party feels is important (e.g. intent), why they care, and what they are likely to do next based upon what previous customers have felt and done.

Empathy measurement falls into three broad categories:

  • Self-reported measures of empathy.
  • Observation to measure empathy i.e. external rating by peer or independent observer.
  • Physiological measures of empathy e.g. facial expression, body language, tone of voice.

Some of these are being adapted to machine learning enabled tools that combine observation (e.g. natural language processing and understanding NLP/NLU) with Physiological methods (e.g. facial expression, voice stress analysis, etc.)

However, at this level the ‘benefits’ are still largely intangible (not monetarily quantifiable) – for example, you can detect increases/decreases in levels of stress or customer / agent rapport. To make those intangible benefits tangible, you need to establish a ‘causal chain’, e.g.:

More empathy -> improved satisfaction -> increased loyalty -> greater lifetime value

Bear in mind that every customer is different. Not everyone expects (or wants) an empathic relationship with you: competence-focussed customers just want to ‘get in, get served, get out’ as efficiently as possible.

In conclusion

It is my belief that those organisations that allow the customer to feel heard and valued will build longer-lasting, more valuable customer relationships for the future – recovering faster from the coronavirus crisis and taking market share from their less empathetic competitors.

Empathy - the ability to sense another person’s emotions - gives you the ability to add human meaning to interactions with your customers and it is more important than ever in the current climate of uncertainty and anxiety. Empathy is also an important character trait for customer service staff to have and enables them to establishes rapport with the customer.

Businesses, and their customer service agents, that fail to understand the emotional state and needs of their customers are less likely to deliver a ‘satisfying’ customer experience, which can result in lower revenues, avoidable losses and damage to the reputation of the company. Furthermore, consumers have figured out that they still have plenty of choice in a competitive world where wider adoption of mobile or digital channels has removed some of the ability for brands to differentiate themselves from their competition.

The ultimate expression of empathy is in taking action – actions that reflect the needs and ‘wants’ of each individual customer. However, empathy is just one aspect of how customers choose and evaluate an experience. It is also a part of broader emotional intelligence and should be based in operational reality too.

Whilst there is no single method for enhancing empathy within an organisation, it must always be led from the top and engage employees at every point – and never forget that employees are people too, with their own needs.

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges that large-scale organisation face is how to introduce individuality and authenticity in environments that have historically been inflexible or where the cultural norms are counter to the desired ideals.

Finally, measuring empathy (or rather it’s business impact) is not easy and many organisations find themselves frustrated in their ability to link cause and effect. However, it is possible and one thing my research has proven to me is that being empathetic towards your customers makes good business sense.

If you would like to find out more about becoming a more empathic business, or how to measure the impact of your existing strategy, I invite you to contact me ([email protected]), or leave a comment.


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By AshtonEsson
28th Jan 2022 01:49

just a super disclosure of the topic, expertise is important!

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