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Long before “I feel you” became a popular catchphrase in music and TV shows, some of the world’s most successful organizations had recognized the power of empathy in customer service.

At a bare minimum, most customers who reach out to a company with a problem expect sympathy -- an expression of compassion for their predicaments and hardships. But empathy, where a company representative shows they’ve actually tried to put themselves in the customer’s shoes, is what often differentiates “great” customer service from merely “good.”

Empathy is about endeavoring to feel what the customer feels when they make a purchase, for example, then runs into glitches and finds themselves turning back to the vendor they bought it from and working it out. It means taking into account the fact that most of us have also had at least one bad experience in customer service. This could include waiting on the line at a contact centre, being passed around agents like a hot potato or failing to resolve our problem at all.

Companies that use Service Cloud have learned how to turn data about various service interactions into a competitive advantage by shortening the time to resolve problems and even predicting what kind of issues will be brought forward next. You can complement that by talking to your team about what it means to apply the data in the most empathetic way possible. It will reflect well on your organization’s brand and, more importantly, elevate the experience on a customer-by-customer basis.

The problem is, empathy may feel like more of a theoretical concept unless you use your imagination. Try a few of these exercises in your next staff meeting and see if there’s an empathy gap in your organization that needs closing -- or if there are team members with strong empathy skills that might deserve greater recognition:

‘Time Regained’

Customers understand that products and services won’t always work as intended. They realize there’s a learning curve on occasion. What’s often most frustrating is the time they need to take from their already-busy schedules to make a call, complain via social media, write an email or make an in-person visit in order to explain what happened. Depending on the situation, a service interaction may be as short as a few minutes or -- when you add up multiple engagements -- more than an hour.

Imagine for a moment you’re the customer with a problem who has gone through the process of getting it fixed. If you could go back in time and avoid whatever steps it took, what would you do with those extra hours or minutes? Would you spend more time serving your own customers? Focus on prospects that could bring in new business? Maybe take an actual, full-hour lunch break rather than stay chained to your desk for the entire time?

Have team members jot down as many ideas they can about what that time savings might look like to the average customer. It will reinforce why fast, quality service is so meaningful to customers, no matter where they work.

“Would You Rather”

If you have kids, they might already play a version of this game. “Would you rather . . .  go to the moon in a rocket, or explore the ocean in a submarine,” they might ask each other. It’s fun to compare and contrast in order to see what’s one person’s preference is versus another.

In a customer service context, though, this is about thinking about how much customers historically loathe dealing with troubleshooting. Again, putting themselves in the customer’s position, ask your team to rank their preferences along the following lines:

“Would you rather call our customer service department, or . . . “

  • listen to someone run their fingernails along a blackboard?
  • wash all the dishes in the company kitchen by hand -- for a month?
  • wax every car in the parking lot -- twice?
  • clean the litter box -- of a pet that isn’t your own?

This one might generate a lot of laughs, but if anyone prefers the chores, it says something about the experience you’re creating through your contact centre. Try the same exercise using a different channel, like email or social media support, to get a fuller picture of the team’s self-evaluation.

“Talk, Talk, Talk”

Great customer service involves a lot of thoughtful listening, no matter what channel is used. And listening can strain anyone’s patience.

In this exercise, ask for two volunteers to take the lead. One is the customer, and one is the agent. Let the “customer” go through their problem and complaint as thoroughly as possible. Unlike a typical support scenario -- where you’re trying to reduce call time or mean time to repair -- let them vent or go through as laborious an explanation as they’d like.

When they’re done, the “agent” needs to try and replicate their issue as perfectly as possible -- not just in the details, but in the tone of voice that reflects how the customer was feeling. The more each party sounds the same, the better. Ask the rest of the team to grade the performance on a five-point scale.

“Sounds like”

When you play charades, you might mime an object or person that closely resembles whatever clue you’ve been given to the audience. Something similar can be useful to stimulate empathy in customer service.

For instance, when an agent confesses to a customer that they went through a similar difficulty in a different setting (like talking about waiting in a long lineup in a grocery store when a customer calls in to complain about being on hold, for instance), it humanizes an otherwise professional encounter. Of course, some organizations may have a policy against having agents use personal comparative examples, but as an exercise it can tap into their innate abilities to connect with those who turn to them for help.

Have one member of your team share a typical customer complaint. Have another member try and think of a situation they’ve gone through that “sounds like” the one they’ve just heard. Have them offer more details about why it was so trying, and what they learned by going through it.

As you cultivate a more empathetic customer service team, customers will begin to realize you mean it when you say your company “cares.” And they’ll begin to reward that caring with more of their business.