Experience as a service: How technology is enabling greater agent empathy
The need for empathy in customer service has never been greater than now.
Empathy has always been an important quality for service agents to possess. Indeed, in a 2013 survey of call centre managers from the CCA empathy was reported as one of the most important traits required from modern-day contact centre agents, alongside an independent mindset and problem-solving abilities. But never has empathy been more important than now - a time of global crisis when customers are anxious, stressed and in need of reassurance and understanding.
“Empathy, at its core, is the ability to truly understand and share the feelings of another,” says Alex Willmott of Smith+Co Consultancy. “It changes everything. For if we have that almost subconscious empathetic perspective, the people around us become more than just merely extras in our own experience, but human connections; valued and welcomed.
“Brands that have this throughout their customer experience strategy will always inspire advocacy. It's simple, people want to feel valued and welcomed. Whether it's the customer, the client or the employee, if your culture encourages empathy, people will want to be a part of it as long as possible.”
Brendan Dykes, director of product marketing at Genesys, adds: “Empathy alone is not the destination; it is the differentiator. We all want a transaction engagement that is efficient and effective, it is the efficacy that we all desire, but when things go wrong, then empathy and understanding is what differentiates the good from the bad experiences.”
However, in the modern world empathy hasn’t always been in rich supply. At a societal level, concerns have been raised that empathy is in decline. There is potentially even a generational element to this, with some suggesting that a generation is being raised that is oblivious to the feelings of others.
And this has also bled over into the business world - despite the damaging implications that this can have for customer relationships. Alex Allwood, author of Customer Empathy: A radical intervention in customer experience management and design, has spoken of there being a ‘customer empathy deficit’ at many organisations these days.
“Executives and employees alike have lost their human connection with customers. They have lost a propensity to understand customers - to perspective-take, to step into their customers’ world and experience their lives from the customer’s point of view; to understand how their customers think, feel and experience,” she notes.
“Organisations are structured to deliver greater productivity and efficiency, increasing internal competition and decreasing collaboration and communication. In consequence, businesses’ thinking, problem-solving and decision-making have become less and less human. Without customer empathy, how do we bring organisational understanding and meaning to what’s important to customers in designing and delivering experiences?”
Dykes believes that waning empathy is a consequence of businesses prioritising processes over people. “Organisations see customer service in particular as a cost that needs to be minimised. Therefore, staff are not given time to engage - they are there to ‘get the job done’. The processes and measures are too often focused on being efficient and effective for the business not the customer, e.g. average handle time or first contact resolution. Neither are bad in themselves but when driving these down becomes the sole goal of the customer engagement staff then the space, time and technology (i.e. data) needed to really understand each individual and their needs and their journey is lost in the whitewash of consistency and process adherence.”
How is technology enabling greater agent empathy?
While some may assume that technology represents another barrier to human empathy, it is in fact enabling greater empathy in service interactions, provided the processes allow it.
Dykes continues: “To show empathy requires two key factors: a deep knowledge of the customer and their journey and an ability to hear and understand where they are at right now. Technology supports this by providing true insights into where the customer is in their journey and presenting this in a timely and clear manner during the conversation. It also provides the opportunity to support the agent with insights into what the customer is really saying, understanding context, emotion and insight through deep understanding of both the conversation’s content and its sentiment.”
And thanks to the cloud these solutions to organisations that aren’t the sole preserve of large organisations or purely those with significant financial power.
“Historically it was the large enterprises with deep pockets, large IT budgets and large technical teams who could take advantage of the latest innovation,” Dykes notes. “The cloud has changed that, any organisation can now access and consume the latest of technologies. This has levelled up the playing field, it has democratised access to the latest tools. It is now the ability to best apply the technology in a business scenario that will differentiate the service level offered by organisations.”
The need for empathy has never been greater than now. And those organisations that deliver reassuring and understanding customer experiences in these times will build long-term relationships.
As Martin Lindstrom, chairman of The Lindstrom Group, notes: “In times of need, you can really make a difference — and your customers will notice. In difficult times, you can cement a lifelong relationship” he says.
And once the world finally emerges from the pandemic into a ‘new normal’, the role of technology in supporting service operations and their teams will be crucial to help organisations adapt and respond to customer needs with understanding and empathy.
“I think we will see an increased need for flexible working and technologies that enable it,” says Dykes. “Now businesses, through the cloud can relocate resources wherever they want, be it at home, another building or another country. This flexibility of technology also supports the flexibility of labour, new groups of people can now become a part of the contact centre team, older people who have experience can work from home and be flexible with their hours, the same is true of students, for example.”
“I saw an estimate that perhaps 5% of jobs will not return to the office environment. These people will need to have support mechanisms around them in terms of knowledge and insights, but also emotional support – what if you were on a call with a bereaved parent, or a terminally ill patient? Giving empathy can be an emotionally draining experience.”
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.