Empathy: the key to a meaningful customer experience

August 19, 2014

Spanning across all cultures, religions, and communities, there is some variant of the one axiom I remember from my childhood above all others--the golden rule--"do unto others as you would have them do unto you". The customer experience way of saying this is: "Putting yourself in the customer's place, what would you expect?" I see it as one word: "Empathy."

Wouldn't you think this should be the very first lesson on the very first day of customer service training? Yet the stories I've heard, and the experiences I've had, lead me to believe this isn't the case. Perhaps it's SO obvious, it's assumed everyone would already know this very basic rule.

I've experienced customer service rep (CSRs) deflect by telling me about the "day they have had" or otherwise commiserating with me. That's sympathy, not empathy, and there is a big difference. Customers don't want your pity. They want your understanding. Here's perhaps an extreme, but important, example.

My mom died last fall. In addition to dealing with her loss, I also had the responsibility of being the executor of her estate. This required me to close out or switch over a myriad of accounts, ranging from her mortgage, health care bills, household accounts, and of course, credit cards. I knew that since my name wasn't on many of the accounts, it might not be easy, and my attorney had forewarned me that all companies have a right to request a death certificate. More work isn't what I wanted: I just wanted my mom back.

Doing it right
Most CSRs were great. They truly empathized with me, and what I needed. There was that pause before they said anything, a lowering of their voice, a little less cheeriness, and almost always an off-script response like "I'm so sorry, I'll make this as easy as possible." You could just tell they had imagined being in my place. Some CSRs offered to help further, to follow-up, or to check back that I had got a cancellation confirmation. None asked me to take part in a survey or asked if there was anything else they could help with—classic closing CSR scripts. They simply once again expressed their condolences and said good bye.

One outstanding experience was cancelling my mom's car insurance policy. The company required a faxed copy of a death certificate before closing the account, and as the CSR started to say "I'm leaving shortly...", she stopped, started again and said: "If you can fax it tonight, I'll stay and call you back as soon as I have it." She knew at that instant it wasn't about her, it was about me. (For the record, I wouldn't have minded her leaving, but it sure was great to just wrap things up.)

Making mistakes
To the other extreme would be my experience cancelling cable. It's something they must do hundreds of times a day and it should be simple, right? I called, and was told I had to bring the equipment in and could be charged until I did. OK, makes sense, I guess. I showed up to drop off the equipment and after waiting in line for 50 minutes I explained my situation, and the lady behind the counter said: "If your name isn't on the account, I need proof of death before we do anything." "I need" are not empathetic words. I explained that I had changed my mom's account several times in the past with no issues, only to be told that anybody can upgrade an account, but only authorized people can downgrade or cancel an account. She might as well have said: "If you ain't paying, we ain't playing." I did have a copy of the death certificate, but an original was required. When I returned 2 days later with an original, the CSR made a photocopy (irony) and handed the original back to me. So, 1 phone call, 2 trips, and 2 hours total time invested. The question I have is what did the company gain from putting that burden on me? What would they have lost by being more empathetic and even trusting me? Perhaps I was lying to get out of a contract. Wouldn't this lack of empathy drive customers away, causing a greater financial burden than excusing a contract?

What can you do
A good place to start is having a conversation with your customer-facing employees about empathy. Tell them they need to consider the customer's point of view before deciding how to respond. While I gave an extreme example, anytime a customer calls for help, it's the job of a CSR to figure out how to help. Sometimes, there is a policy in place to guide the CSR. In that situation, it's just as important to tell the CSR to listen and not just read the script.

And sometimes "help" means understanding the situation and acting accordingly. It is beneficial to explain to your team that there are times they should, and can, go off-script. There isn't a script for every possible situation.

And above all, let them know, the most important rule of customer experience is the golden rule.

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