Empathy is the Secret to Great Customer Support

“We are all united by one single desire to be valued by another,” says Dale Carnegie in How to Win Friends and Influence People

It’s true: humans are unified in one common goal.  We all want to feel that people care about us, and that’s no different for your customers.

That said, blindly following “best practices” without understanding what your customers actually need doesn’t offer a good experience. To understand what your customers want and offer a great customer experience, you need to make decisions with empathy. With customer experience becoming a critical differentiator between competitors, the more empathetic you are, the more successful your business will become.

The Empathy Index determined that the top 10 empathetic companies out of almost 200 businesses increased in value more than twice as much compared to the bottom 10. They also generated 50% more in earnings. The combination of CX and empathy can provide a distinct  boost in revenue. 

In this post, we’ll break down the critical aspects of empathy, and how to use them in your company so that everyone feels valued.

What is empathy?

Empathy is the ability to understand and connect with someone else’s feelings. In business, empathy is the ability to react meaningfully to a customer’s emotions. It allows you to affirm that you understand the pain or frustration that they are feeling, even if you can’t fix it at the moment.

However, there are a few different kinds of empathy:

  • Affective empathy is the ability to share the emotions of others, such as feeling grief for a friend’s loss.
  • Cognitive empathy is the ability to understand the emotions of others, much like how psychiatrists dig into the feelings of their patients.
  • Emotional regulation is the ability to regulate one’s emotions, such as a doctor who keeps their feelings under wraps in moments of pressure.

Each of these plays a role in business, just as they do in life outside of it, and all of them are important in support. Affective empathy helps support team members feel what customers are feeling, cognitive empathy helps understand the motivation behind a customer’s question, and emotional regulation helps agents keep their cool during complicated and potentially heated conversations.

How do we build empathy?

While some people are born with high empathy and emotional intelligence, you don’t have to be. It can be learned. A study by Massachusetts General Hospital and Northeastern University found that eight weeks of mindfulness training produced significant brain changes in the areas connected to empathy.

Apple includes a guide to empathy in their employee handbook. There are a few other steps that can help your team build empathy:

  • Pay attention to customer body language. Nonverbal cues are 38% of the emotional content a person conveys. Listen with your eyes, if you’re communicating in person or over video.
  • Listen to their tone and what they are saying. Are they sarcastic? Learning to tune into mood can help you calibrate your empathetic barometer.
  • Go through the journeys that your customers take in your product, such as placing an order on your website, or reaching out to your support team to “walk a mile in their shoes”.
  • Conduct on-site visits or focus groups to get face time with your customers and learn how they feel.
  • Read customer responses to your surveys and reviews.
  • Review customer support cases regularly, if you aren’t commonly working in the inbox.

Regularly challenging your own biases and perspective is the best way to build empathy for your colleagues and customers.

Why do we need empathy?

The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology states that humans don’t remember individual events as a whole. What they remember are only pieces of the event: the most intense moment, and the end. It’s known as the Peak-End Rule.

Imagine this: a customer reaches out to your team for a refund because they’d gotten the wrong product shipped to them. Then, your team responds, “Well, tough luck. I’ll see if I can find the right sizes, and I’ll connect you to the team that can fix your mistake.” Sure, the customer gets their issue resolved, but do you think they’ll remember the resolution or the tone your team used? Getting the right products sent to them isn’t the “peak” of the experience, even though it should be. The crumby response is.

When you shift your focus to providing empathy rather than just providing resolutions, even a routine conversation can take on new meaning for your customers. Customers want to feel like you hear them and that their concerns are significant. We are all united by the single desire to be valued. By cultivating empathy, you give this gift to your customers.

Where can we use empathy?

Most importantly, we can also use empathy with each other. When talking to your team members or members of different functions within your organization, do so with understanding. Assume positive intent and try to understand where they are coming from before you jump to conclusions about their motivations.

According to a Gallup poll, 60% of millennials are willing to hear about new opportunities, and only 29% of them feel engaged in the jobs they currently have. Empathy can help improve the working environment to engage employees. It’s a gamechanger and a leading indicator of workplace happiness.

Outside of internal empathy, using empathy with your customers is a surefire path to business success. Peppering in empathetic phrases in your chats and emails is an excellent way to convey that you care. Here are a few to try: 

  • “If I understand correctly…”
  • “I would feel X too, in that situation.”
  • “I’m sorry you’ve had to deal with this…”
  • “That would frustrate me, as well.”
  • “I’ve experienced this issue recently too.”
  • “I appreciate X…”
  • “If I were in your position, I would feel the same way!”
  • “I would be asking the same things that you are.”
  • “You are totally right.”
  • “I would come to the same conclusion.”

Empathy doesn’t always need to be direct. Sometimes it can just be thanking someone for their time or letting them know you’ll be there if they have other troubles—experiment with what works best for your team.

Who needs empathy most?

The answer is you. When companies start to become strategic with their customer support workflows, they often move away from methods that focus on customer empathy. As we scale our processes, it can come at the cost of being human. 

Metrics like first reply time, first contact resolution, and average handle time all push your team members further away from viewing your customers as human and closer to seeing them as numbers. Customers become cogs in a giant machine of customer satisfaction. When that happens, customers become vulnerable to behaviors that no one enjoys experiencing:

  • A disrespectful tone of voice. 
  • Late or unuseful responses sent without recognition or apologies.
  • Customers feeling discouraged about contacting your support teams.
  • Agents that always transfer issues to other groups to avoid taking responsibility.

Your customers need empathy. Your company needs empathy. Encourage your customer-facing teams to embody it to succeed against your competitors.

Empathy is a competitive advantage

Valuing people, and treating them as such, costs your company nothing. Of a group of 150 top CEOS, 80% of them ranked empathy as the key to success, but only 20% of companies conduct ongoing training around empathy. That number has remained the same for the past four years.

Start to implement empathy-building exercises in the day-to-day work of your team. Work on practices like team reviews of customer conversations and user testing to put your team in the shoes of your customers. Intersperse empathetic phrases throughout your text conversations, and pay attention to body language and tone when speaking. Remember: empathy isn’t just for your customers. Being empathetic to other team members helps promote a healthier internal culture and grow your empathy muscles, just like talking to customers. 

Being mindful and empathetic leads to better customer support—and it has the bonus of making you a better person too.

What are some of the best empathetic phrases that you use regularly? Let us know in the comments!

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