Heart muscle empathy

How to develop empathy in your customer service staff


If we have empathetic perspective, the people around us become more than just merely extras in our own experience, but human connections; valued and welcomed.

27th Feb 2019

Empathy is one of the 54 Emotional Intelligence (EQ) competencies, but it is one that has attracted particular interest of late.

In part, this is because there is a concern that empathy in society is in decline. There is even a generational element to this, with some suggesting that a generation is being raised that is oblivious to the feelings of others.

But there is also a growing appreciation for the importance of empathy at a business level.

“Empathy, at its core, is the ability to truly understand and share the feelings of another,” says Alex Wilmott 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.”

And this is increasingly recognised within organisations, and especially so in service departments, where appreciation for the customer’s plight can be particularly important.

In a 2013 survey of call centre managers from the CCA, it was reported that along with an independent mindset, motivated self-starting and problem-solving abilities, empathy was a key traits required from modern-day contact centre agents. With 95% of consumers stating contact centres fall short in providing first contact resolutions across various channels, empathy is the trait most suitable to combat the frustration building up among UK consumers.

“Empathy is one of the most disarming qualities, especially when speaking to a dissatisfied customer,” says Wilmott. “It is essential that the brand's language clearly places the power with the customer, and emphasises that the purpose of the conversation is to bring about a positive outcome for them."

A 2013 survey of call centre managers ranked empathy as a key trait required of agents. 

Derek Eccleston, expert services director at MaritzCX, adds: “Empathy manifests itself through good listening, demonstrating that the company knows the customer as an individual, interest in the customer’s issue and a willingness to shape the company’s response around the needs of the customer. The outcome of empathy, when executed well and followed through, is a customer-shaped response, rather than a generic one.”

Interestingly, the rising automation of service interactions doesn’t preclude a need for greater empathy. In fact, according to Jennifer Wise, senior analyst at Forrester, quite the opposite. She suggests that while empathy is critical to successfully navigate the customer, understanding their expectations and feelings, it is also crucial in terms of the development of new service technologies. “How can we build empathy into increasingly personal and human-like interactions, such as chatbots and other conversational interfaces?” she writes. “How do we ensure that AI-fueled experiences benefit people and don’t just test new capabilities?”

The main point of differentiation

Because of all of these factors, organisations have to spend more effort and money on ways to increase customer empathy.

This is a new challenge for today’s businesses. But it is unavoidable. Jim Rembach, Call Center Leadership Council Member and CX expert at the Customer Experience Professionals Association, notes: “They have never really had to invest in building employee empathy skills before. And they have no choice. They must do it because customer experience is now the main point of competitive differentiation. And empathy is a core component in creating exceptional customer experiences.”

So how can empathy be developed in your team?

“Increasing customer empathy is more than just teaching people phrases like ‘I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this problem’, or ‘I know how frustrating it can be when that happens’. Because just saying those things are not enough when customers keep experiencing the same problems,” warns Rembach. “It’s forced empathy. And customers feel that it’s not authentic and meaningful.

“Customer empathy is more than words. You must put in the environment and habits that prove you are empathetic. Because empathy only works when it’s genuine.”

Here are a number of ways that organisations can foster genuine empathy amongst their staff.

Create a culture of empathy from the top down

“Empathy can be inspired, but I'm not so sure it can be trained,” suggests Wilmott. “When agents see more senior staff members deliver a wonderful customer experience for the customer, they too will want to replicate this. Training someone in empathy is a bit like trying to train a performer to have flair. It's not something that can be captured in a seminar or lecture, but it can be demonstrated.

Empathy cannot be contained within corporate empty rhetoric. It has to be demonstrated from the leadership team to the managers.

"Obviously there are leading questions that can help grasp an empathy-rich approach, to try and understand the customer's situation. But it is only when agents begin to engage with customers, using empathetic examples as a backdrop to the conversation, can it really begin to flourish. 

“Empathy cannot be contained within corporate empty rhetoric. Nor can it be summed up by the hand of a copywriter. It has to be demonstrated from the leadership team to the managers, and from the managers across the workforce. From here it affects the customer service environment, and it can be tested too. Do your teams feel like their culture truly understands their perspective, and does your brand truly understand the feelings of the customer and their perspective?”

Create empathy champions

“Organisations would benefit hugely from championing their agents who have a clear love and empathy for those around them,” says Wilmott.

“By championing this approach, entire brand cultures can be transformed. Let them lead the team. Promote them. Give them bonuses and random days off. When you reward empathy, it grows. But whatever you do, do not take it for granted. A person of empathy is a powerful asset holding arguably the most important quality for any brand.”

Increase your employees’ emotional intelligence

“EQ has been proven to contribute greatly to the success of individuals and organisations. Those with higher EQ outperform all others with similar intellectual knowledge," says Rembach. 

"EQ helps you to relate more skillfully with fellow employees and customers. EQ helps you to control your behavior and emotions better. EQ helps you to be more self-aware and prevent being blinded by problems that increase customer effort.”

Better understand your customers

Adrian Swinscoe believes that one way empathy can be built into the organisation is by applying mystery shopping your organisation and/or the competition.

He writes: “It’s a technique that has been used since the 1940s as a way of evaluating a company’s performance from its customers perspective and can look at all aspects of a business from how easy it is to buy from a business, how they deal with questions, complaints or their customer service. Usually independent agencies can be hired to mystery shop your business or your competitors. On completion, they will then provide detailed reports and feedback on their experiences.

“However, it doesn’t end there. What you learn from the mystery shopping experience may be great insight but it is what you do with that insight that will really allow you to build greater empathy with your clients and retain them for longer.”

Rembach recommends that organisations actually go further than mystery shopping, having agents document every touchpoint and interaction.

“Pay special attention to what the perception might be if you and they didn’t have your knowledge,” he says. “Go the extra mile and create a return, escalate a customer service interaction. Take your own survey. You will get an entirely new perspective and hopefully not lose an agent.”

Conduct empathy mapping

Rembach recommends going beyond customer journey mapping, to something he calls ‘empathy mapping’.

He explains: “Have an illustration of how your customers move through different touchpoints and parts of your contact center. But mapping out their experiences in a process driven method is not enough to understand what they feel, what they see, what they say, their fears, and their motivations. In order to connect with their hearts and minds you need Empathy Mapping. Then you can walk through the customer journey and have a greater understanding of how to better engage customers and what you need to do to lower customer dissatisfaction."

Empathy development in action

While these actions make the process of building empathy appear quite straightforward, it is important to stress that it can be a complicated and challenging journey. Swinscoe makes several observations.

“Everyone at all levels of the organisation should be involved as it’s an essential skill not just with dealing with customers but also when we deal with colleagues, stakeholders and suppliers too. However, the challenge with helping people become more empathetic is that it takes time, ongoing practice, focus, attention and opportunities for reflection. That can often be hard for organisations to do on a consistent basis. 

He adds: “It can be kicked off in the classroom but won’t be solved there. It can be helped through coaching and experiential/situational learning opportunities but the pressures and metrics of a busy service environment can act against these type of initiatives.”

Everyone at all levels of the organisation should be involved as it’s an essential skill not just with dealing with customers but also when we deal with colleagues, stakeholders and suppliers too.

Fortunately, this hasn’t prevented some organsiations taking the initiative.

In 2014, the financial services provider Legal & General put its entire customer service staff through an empathy and engagement training programme.

The programme, named Customer Experience Matters, was designed in partnership with learning solutions provider Hemsley Fraser, to help staff enhance their interaction skills. Topics such as building rapport; listening and questioning; managing the conversation; and understanding and acknowledging what matters most to the customer were covered. The training, which is recognised by the Institute of Customer Service, was the first given to agents working in the life protection area, before being rolled out to other departments.

Joanne Peppard, L&D manager for Legal & General's insurance customer service division, has noted the importance of empathy in this field and how it can make all the difference to the customers’ experience.

"Insurance can be an emotional business as you're dealing with people who may be planning for later life, buying a home, having children, coping with bereavement or they may have experienced a flood, a fire or a burglary.

"Customers are often emotionally-charged when they contact an insurance company and it can be extremely frustrating for them if the person they’re talking to responds robotically and doesn’t understand or empathise with how they're feeling. We've always tried to see things from the customer's perspective. This programme builds on that and highlights why it's so important to create an emotional connection with every customer. It reinforces how our staff can apply the right mindset and develop the behavioural skills that will make a difference."

She adds: "Making a cultural change to provide a world-class customer experience doesn't happen overnight. But stories are already being shared on improved interactions with customers and we can see that the right responses, reactions and results are being achieved.”

Added bonus

Interestingly, there is an added bonus for those organisations that commit themselves to a programme of developing empathy – an increase in employee engagement.

In the early 2000s, the NHS introduced The Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) across healthcare organisations, as a frontline function to resolve patient concerns before they escalated into complaints.  

In Kingston Business School’s research of the NHS PALS team, a unit that relies on the enhanced empathy and emotive sensitivity of its staff, a rise in engagement was reported by staff.

“One of the key findings that came from the second phase of the data collection was just how much employees actually believed in the NHS and they believed in what they were doing and they loved what they were doing because there was great motivation, great commitment, great vocational call towards the job itself,” explains Dr Lilith Arevshatian, the lead in Kingston Business School’s research with PALS.

“I think it was quite evident in the data that one of the key motivational drivers for employees was just helping people and resolving issues, and knowing they were genuine in trying to help.

“Sometimes we get quite caught up in looking at private sector models and saying, especially now with cost savings so prominent in the public sector, that that’s the route to follow. But I think there's also quite a lot of room to look at what the public sector does really well and you know one of the things that they do really well is deliver critical service with real heart, real empathy.”

Replies (4)

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By PaulineAshenden
27th Nov 2017 09:23

Consumers are demanding greater empathy when they contact companies - after all, if they simply want basic answers they can increasingly get these themselves via self-service. Therefore agents will need to be much more focused on building an emotional connection when talking to consumers, whatever the channel. And while it is true you can’t teach empathy to everyone, Forrester has come up with some interesting points about how you can boost it in your business - see https://www.eptica.com/blog/why-emotion-central-driving-customer-loyalty for more details.

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Replying to PaulineAshenden:
By clinic
22nd Dec 2017 10:36

Great stuff Neil.

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By JFrentzen
27th Nov 2017 13:58

Neil is known for some pretty good reads, however this one, in my opinion, is quite exceptional. If the following statement is true, then it holds great promise for organizations with the EQ, alignment, and prioritization to make this an initiative within their business(es).

"There is even a generational element to this, with some suggesting that a generation is being raised that is oblivious to the feelings of others."

I'd suggest that we'd want to consider all of this material as part of our thinking but that the quotes above and below as being emblematic of a winning mentality, if it's the goal of your organization to be readily recognized as being empathy champions and a culture known for being rich in this (now) diminishing trait.

"Empathy cannot be contained within corporate empty rhetoric. It has to be demonstrated from the leadership team to the managers."

Again, this is a great read, and better yet it's good fodder for strategic thinking sessions and planning efforts for organizations that want own the category.

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By Sahib1989
26th Dec 2017 09:54

Empathy is not really a kind of skill that takes too long to develop over time. It is something natural that comes easily to certain people of your customer service
staff. However, if your customer service staff lacks this quality, it can be developed as you mention in your article but in my experience, it takes time and patience.

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