7 Meaningful ways to encourage empathy in customer service

Have you ever heard people complain about “soulless” corporate entities, or service that “just didn’t feel human?” Even worse, you may hear customers already upset about an error being further enraged by customer reps who don’t seem to care, don’t seem to listen, or offer redundant solutions that insult the caller’s intelligence.

The key to turning around these customer relations snafus is empathy. In the timeless words of Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, “A person’s toothache means more to that person than a famine in China which kills a million people.” By taking the time to empathize with aggrieved customers, you can turn an angry customer into a cheerleader for your company.

Empathy is an innate human behavior, but some are better at displaying it than others. Fortunately, empathy can be learned. Below are some proven strategies to increase empathy in your customer service.

1. Know Your Client’s Motivations

Skipping your homework on a client’s background and motivations is one of the easiest ways to land a customer service faceplant.

If you can’t answer all of these questions about your clients, it’s time to do some research:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • Who is actually buying your services, and why are they doing so?
  • What problems or pain points do they want your service to solve?
  • What is most important to your clients?

It’s difficult to empathize and problem-solve effectively when you don’t understand what’s motivating your clients to use your service.

It’s also harder to inform your team on the best ways to help them. For example, let’s say you provide an IT service targeted primarily at baby boomers. The millennial techies on your team should know to slow down and explain things about technology that they take for granted with members of their own generation.

Once your team is informed about the ways your clients want to be helped, it will be easier for them to execute flawless customer service.

2. Know How to Apologize

How often have you rolled your eyes when, after saying something exceptionally vile, a celebrity pulls in the mic and says, “I’m sorry you interpreted my statement that way.” What? That’s not an apology! Neither is, “We’re sorry for the inconvenience this may have caused you,” or “We’re sorry you had a bad experience.”

None of those statements are apologies, and customers know it. If you want them to believe that you regret a mistake, use specific language that:

a. Accepts personal responsibility for what went wrong
b. Acknowledges the frustration of the customer

For example, if your company overcharged a customer, your rep could apologize by saying, “I am so sorry for this incorrect charge. It makes perfect sense that you are angry, and here is what I will do to fix it…”

In cases where the customer may have made an error as well, it’s important not to assign blame on the customer. Reps should assume your clients have the best intentions, and should handle each situation respectfully.

3. Make It Personal

Never underestimate the power of calling someone by name. Whenever you interact with a customer, make a point of learning their name and then using it again later on in the conversation. Even using it at the end of the conversation can make the person feel noticed and put at ease (“Thanks again for calling today, Tim. Is there anything else I can help you with?”).

In addition, it’s important to make sure you understand the situation and the customer’s story. Doing a quick recap of the customer’s complaint (“If I understand correctly, Tim, you are calling because…”) will help them feel as though you’re really listening. It also lets you double check that you’re providing the solution they need. You can even use encouragement to put yourself on the same side of the issue as the customer (“I’m sure we can solve this together…”).

Finally, arm your reps with access to a customer’s account history whenever possible; this helps them personalize their response accordingly and use that knowledge to help the customer. If you’re using an email response, take the time to write something specific to that customer; discourage complete reliance on cut-and-paste responses.

4. Show What You’re Doing to Help

Customers who call in regarding an urgent issue are often afraid the issue will not be resolved successfully. That fear frequently surfaces as the idea that the support reps “don’t know what they’re doing” and that they “don’t care about me.”

If you want to assuage your customer’s fears, keep them in the know about how you’re helping them.

Your team should patiently walk them through their options whenever a decision involves customer input. At the end of every conversation, reps should be ready to tell each customer exactly what they’ll do to solve the problem. Statements such as, “I will personally take this to our finance manager,” etc., have a powerful calming effect.

It’s also helpful to have a ticket system that notifies customers when action is taken on their ticket. That way, even after they’ve hung up the phone, they know what’s being done to address their issue.

5. Put Your Reps in the Customer’s Shoes

When you bring new members onto the team or schedule retraining for your representatives, take some time to ensure that they experience your service firsthand. If you provide a software solution, have them practice using the software. If applicable, have them tag along for in-person services or show them videos of your service in action. When they understand the service you provide and how it feels to be on the receiving end of that service, it’s easier for them to empathize with your clients.

It’s important to walk them through case studies of your best and worst moments as a company. Learning from real successes and failures will help set the tone for their own service.

6. Take 5 to Keep Your Cool

If you or one of your team members have had a really rotten day, it can be hard to turn around and empathize with customers. Even one negative interaction with a team member or client can throw reps off their A-game. Instead letting their aggravation show during interactions with clients, your representatives need to calm down and clear their heads.

You can facilitate this process by giving them a couple minutes to regroup after a particularly frustrating call or interacting.

Encourage team members to setup a comfortable workspace and have their favorite music accessible to help them calm down.

By making sure your team always has the space to keep calm, you ensure that they can give your customers the attention they need.

7. Consider Nonverbal Cues

Do you or your team members interact with customers in person? If so, pay attention to your team’s body language. You can say all the right things, but if you do so with your arms crossed and your brow furrowed, people will know you’re not sincere.

Tone of voice can be just as influential; if you have any reps with a penchant for throwing shade via their vocal chords, you may want to take them aside and work with them to portray a more positive attitude.

Ultimately, empathy boils down to treating your customer with respect and working to understand their point of view. By empowering your team with techniques to encourage positive interactions, you raise the overall quality of your customer service.

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