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3 Ways to Lean Into Empathy for Better CX

Finding Empathy In Customer Experience

It’s easy to assume that empathy is one of those things…we should all know it, feel it, and share it. Just typing that sounds like a better world, a world in which we understand our fellow humans better.

So the term empathy gets tossed around a lot in customer experience.

But what do we really know about it?

First, let’s define what we’re talking about when we discuss the need for empathy.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In the context of customer experience, empathy involves understanding the customer’s perspective, acknowledging their emotions, and showing that you care about their needs and concerns.

But really, it’s about the customer FEELING that empathy. It’s so critical for humans to feel understood, appreciated, and heard so they can move forward in a more positive way than where they may have started.

Yet how do we teach people to help other people FEEL the right way? That’s a pretty tall order, and in all reality, not an easy thing to do. Toss in organizational structure heavily focused on data and cultures that ask employees to repress those pesky human feelings at work, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Empathy is a muscle of sorts, and we have to allow ourselves to prepare the right ways to use it, get stronger at it as a skill, and understand that those recovery periods are vital to restoring energy around it.

In customer experience, empathy is required in many ways:

  • Reviewing feedback from customers often leads to a sense of “empathy blindness” when we only focus on numbers and metrics and don’t really connect those with human beings.
  • Designing experiences for customers requires looking from the outside in. We need to exercise empathy not just for HOW we want a customer to behave, but for their whole lives outside of our specific part in that.
  • Frontline employees need to express empathy and have the right tools available to them so they can thoughtfully and compassionately guide a customer to what is next.

Within any of these contexts, and countless others, it’s easy to fall into the habit of thinking people will just “get it.”

I asked for feedback about the best ways to teach empathy in social media and several answers were around this idea. Several responses were focused on the idea of “you get it, you can’t be taught.”

And while caring for others is certainly something more innate in some people than others, there are certain skills, ideas, and actions that can help connect empathy at key moments for both your customers and employees – and your leaders, too.


Empathy for Real Life Customers

Here are a few ideas to connect empathy to your customer experience at your organization.

1. Encourage Empathy Response Training

It’s not always easy to know what to say when a customer is raging about a missed delivery or anxious about receiving a product.

Frontline employees, as well as anyone who *may* deal with a customer, like those in billing, can benefit from training that helps them understand what empathy is, how to demonstrate it effectively, and how to manage their own emotions in the process.

We often treat empathy as an infinite resource, but more and more data is telling us that’s not true. Healthcare professionals discussed how the crush of the pandemic response at its height led to compassion fatigue. This is a real phenomenon, which is described as a normal response to chronic stress resulting from caregiving. Now many employees don’t have the high-stakes responsibilities of healthcare workers, but some are still dealing with chronic stress. When products fail and the complaints are rolling in, or the price increases and shoppers are asking for constant discounts, or the supply chain is disrupted and customers aren’t getting what they paid for…that can create a chronic stress situation for those answering phones, serving customers in retail, or responding to one angry voicemail after another.

They may not have as much empathy for the twentieth customer as they did for the first.

Tools and skills can help protect these employees a bit. Just like strong habits build better outcomes, having the right tools can help employees feel prepared and ready for that next interaction.

Some companies provide empathy prompts or scripts to help customer service agents respond with empathy in specific situations. For example, a prompt might encourage an agent to acknowledge a customer’s frustration before attempting to resolve their issue. These are tricky, because we don’t want customers to feel like they are being “read to” from a script. So I encourage agents and others to use the prompts as reminders, not an actual script. That can lead to more authentic conversation and focusing on empathy as the outcome, not the words themselves.

Training may involve role-playing exercises, discussions about customer service scenarios, and other activities designed to develop empathy skills.

Don’t save these training sessions for just your contact center agents. These sessions often enlighten the rest of the organization with how their role, even if it’s not customer-facing, has a direct impact on the customer experience.

Related Resource: Common Customer Experience Training Obstacles — And Their Solutions


2. Provide Emotional Support and Endorse Self-Care

Dealing with difficult or emotional customer situations can be challenging, and it’s important for customer service agents to have access to emotional support when they need it. To be effective at showing empathy, humans need to take care of themselves. Some of this is around culture. Is there an environment where people feel safe to share and receive this type of support? Leaders need to endorse this early and often. If a high-stress situation is on the horizon, remind employees to take care of themselves with breaks, breathing exercises, and permission to step outside. This may involve practices like regular exercise, meditation, or taking breaks to recharge throughout the day.

A creative contact center I saw had a small room with a few stationary bikes, a treadmill, a yoga mat, and a massage chair. Agents were encouraged to leverage those resources for their emotional well-being. Some agents showed up for shifts early to walk around the nature trail outside of the office so they would be at their best for customers.

Another creative solution was a simple purple magnet that agents could attach to their monitor as a sign they had just had a tough situation with a customer and needed a minute. It was a signal to others, too. They asked if they wanted to talk it out or needed a minute alone. Agents reported feeling more supported after this was implemented, and managers noticed how peers were assisting each other in healthier ways.

In high-stakes or short-term crisis situations, this may involve access to counselors or mental health resources, support from managers or colleagues, or other forms of emotional support.

If you see employees starting to lose their compassion or understanding of customers, encourage them to connect with what brought them into these roles in the first place. Remembering the motivation of helping others is a great boost for both emotional well-being and topping off the tank for showing more empathy.


3. Provide Constructive, Positive Feedback and Coaching

It can be demoralizing to hear negative feedback again and again. And yet sometimes, we treat customer feedback as if the only thing that is worth exploring is the negative response.

With real-time feedback tools, leaders can see what goes RIGHT and celebrate the individual employee, team, or whole company for delivering for customers. Yet leaders often miss the moment.

I love using “Mission Moments” to really show when an employee, whether a front-line agent or warehouse manager, showed up for a customer by living up to the Customer Experience Mission Statement . Celebrate these moments and create ways for peers to recognize one another.

And if things don’t go well, it’s ok to coach and provide feedback, of course. The closer it is to the situation, the better. Some agents take more than 100 calls and chats in a shift, then are asked about why there was a negative response from a specific customer from last Tuesday. That’s not fair to them and doesn’t provide the right feedback for them to improve. Those transactional surveys and real-time reports are fast, so we can leverage them quickly.


Customer Empathy Means Going Beyond the Obvious

Empathy is such an essential part of the human experience, not just customer experience. Is your organization just assuming it’s happening? Now is the time to proactively design more effective ways to connect empathy to your experience.

About Jeannie Walters, CCXP, CSP

Jeannie Walters CCXP CSP small square photoJeannie is an award-winning customer experience expert, international keynote speaker, and sought-after business coach who is trailblazing the movement from “Reactive Customer Service” to “Proactive Customer and Employee Experience.” More than 500,000 people have learned from her CX courses on LinkedIn Learning, and her insights have been featured in Forbes, The Chicago Tribune, The Wall Street Journal and NPR

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