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Empathy serves as a foundational component of customer experience. For many customer service agents it is a natural trait, but for others it may require training.
When organizations show that they understand what their customers are going through, their customers are more likely to feel a stronger emotional connection with the brand. And if a customer knows that a business provides stellar customer service and they choose to return frequently, the company can increase revenue and stand out among the competition.
The first step to making empathy a bigger focus within an organization is to understand what empathy means.
Why empathy is essential to customer experience
Empathy is the ability to sense other people's emotions and imagine what someone else might be thinking or feeling. Empathy only implies understanding of their perspective, not necessarily agreement with their position.
When customer service agents or any organization's representatives demonstrate high empathy levels, the result is increased customer satisfaction and loyalty, as well as improved financial performance. Harvard Business Review research suggests the top 10 most empathetic companies increased their monetary value more than twice as much as the bottom 10 companies and generated 50% more earnings.
It isn't enough for agents to use empathetic statements; it comes down to whether customers feel as though agents identify with and understand their situation, feelings and motives.
Companies who don't demonstrate empathy consistently or put themselves in the customers' shoes risk losing customers to other businesses. It is important for leadership to recognize the importance of empathy so that it manifests in employee culture. If leadership doesn't drive the importance of empathy, the business will operate in siloes that focus on customer satisfaction scores instead of identifying the root cause of the problem.
Demonstrating empathy and common empathy statements
Empathy in customer experience requires asking the right questions and keeping an open mind to gain insights into the customers' needs and address their problems. It also involves the assumption of positive intent while setting aside prejudgment and assumptions about customers' experiences and the role of fault.
Organizations can infuse more empathy in their operations in the following ways:
- Acknowledge customers' feelings. Customer service agents should mirror a customer's mood in conversation, identify the root of their problem and provide a compassionate response.
- Use common statements to practice empathy. Examples of common statements team members across the organization can use in their conversations to help build empathy and trust with customers include:
- Thank you for getting in touch about this. We must get it fixed.
- I am sorry you have had to deal with this.
- If I understand correctly, is this what you mean?
- You're right.
- I've had a similar experience with this issue recently, too.
- I would be asking the same questions as you are.
- I understand how frustrating it must be to wait this long for your order.
- I appreciate your patience.
- It makes total sense that you would need some help with this.
- What would be the best-case scenario for you?
It's important to note that customer service agents should not sound formal and scripted. Instead, they should ask these questions and speak with a casual tone.
- Understand how offerings or business approaches make customers feel. Organizations should gather and use customer feedback to adapt approaches depending on what the customer wants from the offering or service. By doing so, the customer feels as though the company heard their voice and appreciates their opinion.
- Build touchpoints with the customer in mind. A business should listen to their customers' demands regarding which touchpoints through which they prefer to interact with a business. Physical touchpoints may include brochures, flyers or letters, while digital touchpoints include posts on social media, emails or messages and notifications on mobile apps.
It pays to build customer empathy, but it's even more important to act. Paying attention to customer needs -- and taking the first steps to address them -- can lead to big rewards for the organization in terms of sales, income and growth.
How to train employees to be empathetic
Organizations can provide empathy training through coaching and role-playing. Here are some examples of how to train employees to be empathetic:
- Use conversational instead of transactional interactions. Teach agents and other employees to evolve their interactions from being transactional to more conversational. Transactional interactions come across as though the agent is reading a script. Instead, agents should use the script or questions as a guide and add in their natural conversational style.
- See from the customer's perspective. Help agents to not just "walk in the customer's shoes" but also actively listen. Use words that offer support and use the appropriate tone of voice to convey empathy. This could include taking a moment to consider how they, as the agent, would prefer to receive assistance then apply that to the questions, tone and exchange that they have with the customer.
- Personalize customer interactions. Offer customers personalized interactions rather than scripted responses. While organizations want to ensure agents cover key steps and meet requirements, training should include how to enable personable and empathetic reactions, such as training employees to focus on scenarios more than scripts -- once the agent has the confidence and the experience to do so.
- Teach principles rather than procedures. Teach principles of customer interaction instead of teaching a core focus on procedures for how to interact with customers, and treat customers as people rather than personas. For example, when a customer calls, the agent should ask them the necessary core questions to identify who the caller is. Then the agent should give the customer an opportunity to explain their situation and work to resolve it, as opposed to the agent making assumptions about the situation based on the customer's few initial statements.
- Avoid taking customer words personally. Help agents recognize that customers seek to be heard and understood, and that they should not take their words personally. Agents need training on how to maintain composure, take ownership and express commitment, which are essential skills that customer service tools can't provide.
The difference between problem-solving and empathy-based responses
Customer service agents can't solve a problem for customers and expect complete satisfaction without using empathy. Customer service aims to deliver a positive experience during the customer journey; it doesn't aim to just solve the problem.
People often feel inclined to solve a problem quickly and avoid feeling and understanding the emotions that the problem caused. For example, a problem-solving agent may receive a call from a frustrated customer that is having trouble making a return on the company website. The agent that wants to solve the problem may tell the customer to look on the "Returns" page on the website where they will find the information that he or she needs.
Empathy-based responses, on the other hand, recognize rather than avoid the emotions that other people are feeling. Dealing with the previous example of the customer making a return, the agent may deliver an empathy-based response such as "I understand that the return process is difficult and that information can be hard to find. Let me explain where you can find it and I can walk you through the process."
To solve a problem correctly starts with empathy. Agents must understand a customer's feelings and his or her unique situation, then identify the root cause of the problem. Companies must not only problem solve, but also stay connected to their customers, imagine they are in the customer's shoes through ongoing user testing and anticipate what they need based on what they learn from customer feedback.
Customer-centric companies consider empathy as the process of knowing the customer. Empathy means listening to the customer's pains and understanding the situation from their point of view. Intuition isn't enough. It takes an active effort to build empathy and then dedicated action to address the pain.
Empathy is a fundamental business principle or customer experience tenet; it is also a viable business investment. A tiny dose of understanding, delivered at the right time and in the right tone, can save someone from sliding into despair and pull them closer to contentment.
Contact center technology to help drive empathy
There are tools available to help businesses understand how their customers are feeling, including:
- Sentiment analysis tools, or software that analyzes text and determines its emotional tone, can help customer service agents understand how to deal with a customer's problem. When the agent responds to an unhappy customer, they will already know the sentiment behind the initial message and express empathy and let the customer know that they are here to help.
- Natural language processing (NLP) technology can help customer agents understand and analyze speech. NLP analyzes the syntax and semantics of speech to determine the meaning of what a customer is saying. NLP makes it easier to interpret and analyze large amounts of text, which is useful for longer conversations. Agents can use NLP to understand what a customer means and have a better idea of how to solve the customer's problem.
- CRM software is another tool that is beneficial to businesses. It can be frustrating when customers reach out to customer service teams with issues then must repeat their problems to multiple agents. CRM systems keep customer information in one place and enable agents to look into a customer file to understand their interactions with a company to avoid repetition. Adding a customer data platform to the tech stack can also help, as it will pull customer information from multiple systems into one golden record of the customer, giving businesses a complete view of customer interactions.