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How to Inculcate Empathy in Your Customer Service Culture

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How to Inculcate Empathy in Your Customer Service Culture

Nov 07, 2022
8 min read

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The COVID-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on customer expectations. For instance, consumers expect more empathy from customer service teams now than they did before the pandemic.

Hiver’s research on consumer expectations revealed:

  • 80% of consumers expect better customer service.
  • 21.3% believe support teams should provide more empathy.
  • 31.8% want both more responsiveness and more empathy.

Considering the trying times we’re living in, your customer service representatives must understand that a bit of empathy goes a long way for customers who are trying their best to navigate these unprecedented circumstances. 

People are struggling with the stress and anxiety of losing their jobs and figuring out how to pay their rent or mortgage. Others have lost loved ones, and the last thing anyone needs is a poor customer service experience.

This guide covers all the ways your customer support team can become more empathetic, starting with why empathy in customer service is extremely crucial to your company’s success in 2021 and beyond.

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Empathy: It’s what separates good customer service from the best customer service

Empathy is generally defined as the ability to sense other people’s emotions and imagine what they might be thinking or feeling. It’s also the act of letting people know that you hear and understand what they’re saying and feeling. It is one of the most important customer service skills your team members must possess.

When your customer support team displays high levels of genuine empathy, your company will:

  • Increase customer satisfaction
  • Build long-term customer relationships
  • Boost brand image and customer loyalty
  • Find more opportunities for repeat sales
  • Score higher customer reviews and recommendations

Given that customers interact with support teams regularly, displaying empathy is down to how your support staff can handle these interactions.

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hiver customer service benchmark report 2021

8 ways to create more empathy in your customer service team

Creating a culture of empathy in your customer support team should be one of your main priorities for 2021. And if you have remote customer service agents on your internet phone system, it’s even more important to ensure they embody empathy skills when you’re not around.

While some people are naturally more empathetic than others, you can teach empathy to those who may not shine in this area. Monthly training sessions, role-playing activities, and one-on-one coaching can help them make a real difference in your customer’s experience.

Here are eight tips to encourage your customer service team to embody empathy:

1. Learn the difference between sympathy and empathy

There’s a subtle yet important difference between “That’s frustrating” versus “I understand how frustrating this can be; let me help you.”

The former is a sympathetic approach, while the latter exemplifies empathy. 

empathy in customer service email
An example of an empathetic support email | Hiver

Sympathy means understanding a person’s situation or where they’re coming from while maintaining a certain distance. You don’t have to imagine how you’d feel in someone’s position to have sympathy for them. 

Empathy comes from the German word “einfühlung,” which means “feeling into.” So, empathy means feeling what someone else is going through from their point of view. It requires an understanding of the situation, a shared emotional connection, and for CS teams, a desire to help.

When support reps empathize with customers, they’ll feel like:

  • They’re being heard, understood, and valued
  • Their concerns matter 
  • The company is working hard to address the issues ASAP

Here are some empathy statements your support reps can use to provide excellent customer service:

  • I hear you
  • We can work together to solve that
  • Thanks for the feedback. It will certainly help us improve
  • I understand how this is causing problems for you and I will try to solve this as soon as possible
  • I’m sorry you have had to deal with this

2. Encourage active listening

Active listening is the ability to focus completely on what someone is saying, understand and remember the information they’re sharing, and respond thoughtfully. You’ll often hear of active listening in sales, but it should also extend to your CS team.

Support agents must concentrate on customers’ tone of voice, body language, and facial cues. To practice active listening:

  • Let customers finish talking (or venting). When callers explain their issue in its entirety, your reps will have more information and context about the situation, and find it easier to talk to them.
  • Respond, restate, and summarize with the same words your customer used. Reiterating the same language used by your customer will make them feel like they’ve been heard. Validate their point of view and give encouraging feedback to prompt more information. 
  • Express curiosity. Ask your customer pertinent follow-up questions about what they’ve already tried. Never assume they haven’t tried to resolve the issue before contacting you.
  • Remember what’s been shared. Customers hate repeating themselves. It “proves” CS didn’t care to listen the first time around. Have your support staff take notes of what’s been said to show they’re paying attention.
Elements of effective listening to improve empathy in customer service
Elements of effective listening to improve empathy in customer service

Active listening will build an empathetic rapport with each caller and help speed up troubleshooting simultaneously.

3. Put yourself in your customers’ shoes (and vice versa)

A best practice for empathizing with customers is to put yourself in their shoes. Try to get your team to imagine how they would react if the same situation happened to them. 

As your team takes a step back to gain this perspective, they should ask themselves how they would want the issue resolved. This may inspire an out-of-the-box solution that works for your customer and your company.

Similarly, if your customer service rep is dealing with a difficult and angry customer, they may ask the customer what they believe would be an appropriate resolution. This will put your customer in your support staffs’ shoes. When your customer practices empathy, they may see that your agent is trying to work with them, not against them.

Seeing issues from the customer’s perspective will help your team better understand who they really are, and how they can best resolve their problem.

9 Customer Service Skills

4. Get to know and understand your customers

Your customer service team should be armed with deep customer knowledge. With this foundational intel, it’s easier to understand customer needs and get to the finer points of their concerns.

So, who are your customers and what do they care about most? To figure this out, it helps to know:

  • Your customer’s industry, organization structure, typical roles
  • How they use your product/service
  • What they like most about your offerings
  • Their common pain points

When it comes to call centers, you should also get your agents in the habit of learning each caller’s name.

A great customer service tip is to use your caller’s name throughout the conversation. It’s one of the best ways to capture their attention and establish rapport at the beginning of the phone call.

The four Rs of personalization to get to know your customers better
The four Rs of personalization to get to know your customers better

5. Prioritize accuracy over speed

Some customer support managers get so caught up in their team’s ability to provide quick resolutions that it leads to experiences where customers feel as if they’re being rushed or not fully understood. 

In fact, research on consumer expectations shows that the Gen Z demographic values empathy more than a timely resolution.

These two types of questions help your team do both:

  • Leading questions, which helps gather more intel. “After you did X, what happened?” 
  • Reflective questions, which show they understood what was shared. “It sounds like the screen went blank after the hard restart, but the indicator lights were still blinking green?”

Now, speed is still important to both your numbers and your customer’s time. So make sure that your support staff sprinkles in words of urgency, such as:

  • “This problem will be dealt with immediately.”
  • “As we’re talking, I’m currently doing X to troubleshoot the issue.”
  • “I’ll have our team look at this and determine a resolution by the end of the day.”

These two habits will help your team prioritize accuracy and attention to detail without wasting time. Achieving high accuracy is a great way to improve your customer experience metrics like NPS or CSAT – if your CS team is held to them.

6. Address and remove biases

A bias is an automatic judgment based on a customer’s age, gender, language, accent, occupation, etc. Your support staff may not notice they treat customers who fall into different categories unequally, but it’s your job as a manager to open your team’s eyes to this problematic potential.

Experiences with everyday ageism - empathy in customer service
Individuals experiencing everyday ageism

Let’s say one of your agents has an older caller on the line. They may assume this caller won’t be tech-savvy and may talk down to them or get frustrated when they don’t immediately understand how to resolve a technical difficulty. This would be referred to as ageism, and 65% of adults aged 50-80 say they receive these sorts of messages daily.

Experiences with everyday ageism - Empathy in customer service
Ageism experienced by adults aged 50-80

Biases like these can directly or indirectly affect the quality of service your CS team provides. They can create walls between your agents and your customers. And this affects the overall customer experience.

As you cultivate an empathetic team, teach your agents to never assume anything about a customer based on a preconceived notion of who they may be. 

7. Gather customer feedback

Want deeper insight into the quality of your customer service? Gather feedback directly from your customers via web or live chat, email surveys, and social media.

You can also have your agents ask customers questions at the end of their interactions, such as:

  • “How would you rate my helpfulness?”
  • “What could I have done to make our conversation better?”
  • “Are you happy with the resolution I provided? Why or why not?”

If you spot patterns about customers feeling unheard, disrespected, or not helped to the best of an agent’s ability, you’ll know what you need to work on.

In one of the best customer service examples, a passenger of Virgin Airlines wrote a letter to Richard Branson describing their in-flight meal as a “miscellaneous central cuboid of beige matter.”

Branson invited the passenger to help Virgin overhaul its menu. He also later asked the passenger to be on the board of the airline’s culinary council. He famously said:

“A complaint is a chance to turn a customer into a lifelong friend… If we address a complaint well and even involve the customer in the solution, it brings customers closer to our brand.”

Your customers will respect your company much more when you hear their feedback and opinions, value what’s being shared, and resolve to make it right.

A few reasons why customer feedback matters
A few reasons why customer feedback matters

8. Highlight positive customer service interactions

Customer service managers should reinforce positive, empathetic interactions your team has with customers as often as possible. 

Being empathetic to the first caller or someone in a good mood is a lot easier than being empathetic to the last caller or one who’s hostile. That’s why it pays to acknowledge your team members for doing a stellar job and keep them motivated. 

Give them a shout-out at the end of the day. Highlight exemplary instances of customer service during your monthly meetings. Or send an email or Slack message to the team so everyone can dole out kudos.

Do what you can to uplift your team, and you’ll build positive momentum that extends to your customers.

Final thoughts

We should all do a bit more to show empathy towards each other in this post-COVID-19 world. And your customer support team, in particular, has a great opportunity to take a considerate approach to hearing, understanding, and helping those in need or stress.

By encouraging active listening, putting yourself in your customer’s shoes, and addressing unintentional biases, your team will be well on their way to excelling in this area.

Remember, empathy separates good customer experiences from the best ones. So when you follow these eight tips to cultivate a culture of empathy, your team will build stronger relationships with your customers and boost overall satisfaction. This will then drive repeat sales, rave reviews, and long-term loyalty.

Devin Pickell is a Growth Marketer at Nextiva. He combines his skills in content marketing, SEO, data analysis, and marketing strategy to meet audiences at the right moment in their journey. He has helped scale SaaS brands like G2 and Sphere Software, and contributed to G2's traffic growth of more than 1 million visitors-per-month.

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