Teaching Customer Service Staff Empathy

by | Feb 13, 2015 | Customer Service

“When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems”. – Stephen Covey

As a customer focused company, you know the importance of giving the customer what they want. Customers most importantly expect to be listened to and understood – this is why teaching customer service staff empathy takes on a crucial role. In the quote above it is amply clear how empathy will benefit individuals and a company at large. Customers don’t want to waste time and energy being upset or trying to resolve problems but if their issues go unresolved their ire can prove detrimental. Your frontline staff must understand that empathy is a vital portion of customer service – in fact that’s where it all starts. Not everyone has this quality inherently or naturally understands how to practice this important skill. The saving grace for companies is that teaching customer service staff empathy is doable as there are a number of training programs.

The reason that teaching customer service staff empathy is so crucial is because they are the first contacts – the face of your company. How these frontline staff deal with customers or prospective ones will determine whether your customer base grows or shrinks and what percentage of customers remain happy and loyal. Referring back to the quote, when a person perceives empathy, they are less likely to be defensive and irate and are more willing to listen to the person in front of them leading to a quicker resolution of problems and also lowered negative emotions. When customers are not getting what they want because your company fell short on the promises made they naturally have negative reactions and can be highly emotional. Empathy is the balm that will soothe their frayed nerves and calm them down enough to be able to mutually find a solution. Do your company and your customers a favour by teaching customer service staff empathy and create a win-win situation for all concerned.

Learning empathy will help customer service staff understand its real meaning and also grasp its utility when dealing with customers. Empathy is a call to action – not only will they feel for the customer’s plight, they would willingly do whatever it takes to alleviate the problematic situation. However empathy is not just about doing something only when there is a problem – it encompasses being able to listen patiently and completely grasp both the spoken and unspoken word of the customer. When conveyed properly it would elicit positive reactions from customers, who would be more than happy to provide business to your company for a long time to come and also influence others to do business with you.

Amongst the first skills that would be involved in teaching customer service staff empathy, is the art of ‘fine listening’. A fancy term but it simply implies listening for words, actions, expressions, body language and tone of voice when the customer is communicating. Unless customer service staff has ‘an ear’ for this kind of listening, empathy would remain a distant dream. Teaching customer service staff empathy starts with teaching them to be attuned to ‘fine listening’.

As discussed and mentioned in previous expositions, happy and well taken care of employees are more willing partners in serving customers well. Empathy too starts from the inside out – listen to your employees, treat their issues with respect, help them find a work-life balance and give them a work environment that is conducive – be sure they will pass this on to your external customers. Managers and leaders must be mindful of how they behave – being empathetic is contagious – let your frontline staff ‘catch empathy’ from you. This is an extremely effective method of teaching customer service staff empathy.

Post ‘fine listening’ service staff will discover that it is easier to understand the customer’s point of view and will be able to build cordial relationships with them. Drawing customers in by having a pleasant rapport is an important stepping stone in keeping customers happy and establishing long lasting associations with them. When the flow of conversation is smooth and effective, empathy and mutual understanding are more perceptible and the customer service staff would be naturally inclined to resolve the customer’s problem as quickly and effectively as possible.

There are many ways to formally teaching customer service staff empathy. Enlist the help of a professional agency that specializes in such training programs, alter the service staff’s routine and workload and make necessary adjustments to allow the staff to attend such training. In a large backend accounting company the training team would mechanically put together a training schedule, invite trainers with some of the best ideas and then circulate this schedule to the respective team leaders. End of job. More often than not, the attendance at such programs would be very low leading to ineffective sessions or even cancellation. Cribbing and complaining didn’t help. The fact is that before making a schedule, they should have discussed the plan with the team leaders, afford them time to re-allocate duties and make time for a group of people to attend these training programs. A revamp of their processes helped them to better utilize the resources at their disposal.

Participative and interactive training programs have been known to be most effective. Team building exercises, conversational skills and telephone and email etiquette – are all successful ways to emphasize the importance of empathy in customer dealings. Interacting with empathy with their peers and fellow-workers provides service staff to ‘practice’ this skill before actually using it to serve customers.

When teaching customer service staff empathy, ensure that the ‘takeaway’ from such teaching is that they truly understand the impact of this skill and use the appropriate words to demonstrate it. We don’t mean that there should be rote scripts and mechanical ways of dealing with customers. The words are only indicative of what would help to amply display that empathy is really part of the service culture of your company.

– Once the customer has conveyed what they want, the first words they most likely would want to hear are ‘we understand your problem and we are sorry that you have had to experience this’. Ensure that the apology does not seem practiced or feigned and to corroborate your words, rephrase your understanding of what the customer conveyed and check whether your understanding is accurate.

– The next step post understanding is reassuring the customer that you know how they must feel and that anyone in their place would have reacted similarly. Refrain however from advising the customer or bad mouthing your company. Reassure the customer that you will do whatever possible to resolve the situation and if an immediate resolution is possible, go ahead and provide it.

Unless a customer service staff understands empathy, its expression will always seem ‘put on’ and not genuine. How many of us have experienced a dead pan response to an issue – “Sorry for your problem but we would like to inform you that…” – this statement is such a put off and I have found that more often than not I have disconnected the call. The least companies can do is be genuine when expressing – it is not too much to ask for.

The fact about empathy is that it is no longer a ‘nice to have’ but has become a business imperative that will drive profits and retain customers for a long time. While empathy may be a tough skill to teach and learn, it is well worth the effort. It is the duty of every company to teach this skill since it is considered quintessential for the customer service function and is high on the list of customer expectations.

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