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The following is an approved excerpt from Jeff Toister's "Service Failure," which reveals many surprising causes of poor customer service and provides proven solutions drawn from real examples and cutting-edge research. 

Many employees struggle to empathize with customers because they don’t have a similar experience they can relate to. An accountant probably does her own taxes, so she may not understand the confusion her clients experience when they try to fill out tax forms.

A person answering a tech support hotline likely fixes his own computer, so he might have trouble understanding the helplessness his customers feel when their computers stop working. There’s a good chance that a valet parking a $100,000 sports car doesn’t understand the anxiety a customer feels when entrusting something so expensive to a stranger.

How Empathy Helps

Perhaps what’s most confounding about empathy is how obvious the problem seems to those of us who can relate to the situation. Employees who have had similar experiences are often naturally able to empathize with their customers in a way that other employees can’t. I frequently see young mothers traveling on airplanes with fussy infants, and the most helpful flight attendants are consistently those who are mothers themselves. They understand the difficulties of traveling with an infant and are able tell the young mother, “Here’s what I did when my kids were that age.”

The easiest customers to serve are frequently people who have worked in similar positions and can empathize with the employee who is assisting them. Friends of mine who spent years working as food servers always make a point to tip generously because they know tips are an important part of a server’s income.

People who have worked in call centers often try to be extra polite and patient with the person on the other end of the line because they understand how stressful the job can be. When I try on clothes in a store, I always clear out my dressing room because clearing out dressing rooms was the chore I enjoyed least when I worked in retail.

Teaching Empathy

If empathy comes from having had similar experiences, the easiest way to help customer service employees become more empathetic is to put them in their customers’ shoes. 

One way is through training. Many upscale hotels have associates spend a night as a guest so that they can see things from their guests’ point of view. The Westin Portland has new hires participate in what’s called an Associate Stay Experience within their first ninety days on the job. They’re given a checklist of experiences to observe, including the reservation process, their arrival at the hotel, and ordering a meal from in-room dining. Afterward, associates debrief with their supervisors and give feedback about their stay. This training allows associates to have a genuine understanding of what it’s like to be a guest at the hotel.

Another way to put employees in their customers’ shoes is through sharing personal stories from customers. Stories are a powerful way of tapping into our imaginations and helping us understand how the characters may have felt or what they were thinking. I’ve worked with several clients who make medical devices, and they all use a similar technique to help employees empathize with their customers. Throughout their offices you’ll find posters picturing real patients who have been helped by their products. The posters offer a brief description of a patient’s disease or injury and explain how a particular product helped improve or even saved the person’s life.

These examples remind employees of the importance of what they’re doing. And even if they don’t have direct patient contact, they go to work each day knowing they are positively impacting other people’s lives. In many cases, the stories also remind employees of a friend or family member who may have faced a similar medical ordeal.

Hiring for Empathy

A third option is to hire employees who already have similar experiences to those of the customers they’ll be serving. One of the reasons I enjoy shopping at the sporting goods retailer REI is that the employees who work there tend to be avid users of the equipment they sell. When my wife and I went there to buy backpacks for a hiking trip, the associate who helped us was an experienced backpacker who understood the nervousness of planning a first-time wilderness expedition. He helped us select the right gear, and more important, he took extra time to reassure us about our plans.

About the Author

Jeff Toister is the author of Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It, a book that reveals hidden obstacles to outstanding service. His company, Toister Performance Solutions Inc. helps clients identify these obstacles so they can improve customer service.