Empathy and Sympathy in the Customer Experience


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What is the difference between empathy and sympathy? The Oxford English Dictionary is very clear that sympathy is, “feeling pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” and empathy, “understands the feelings someone else is having.”

Subtle difference, and unless you are a grammar evangelist you can forgive choosing one over the other.

But for counselling and other such therapies, the difference is key and is a vital part of their training as empathy is fundamental to the way a therapist can help someone move through their problems.

Why is it such a big part of their training? (arguably the first thing they learn) Well, because sitting next to someone and crying with them brings you to the place they are (and you start needing to get help too), but looking someone in the eye and being able to say “I understand what you are feeling and why” lets them see where you are and helps to guide them to acceptance and understanding.

Empathy is key to a counsellor’s ability to carry out active listening – interesting skill, look it up if you haven’t read it before. Active listening is the ability to allow someone to talk to you and through your response show that you have heard them and understand what they have said.

Active listening builds trust and rapport.

Of course you then get taught how to deal with common issues, and have methods to begin the process of understanding and growth with the patient. But you start by understanding the person in front of you and their experiences rather than just applying a general “fix” that works for everyone.

So what has that got to do with customers?

The customer experience and the customer journey are both very important in order to better understand the processes your customers are going through with your brand. After all, we are all customers so can empathise with where the problems are and what we would want the process to look like if we were experiencing the journey ourselves.

Getting it right is great and it goes a long way to making the customer experience better for our customers but it misses the ability to show your customer that you’re listening and that you understand what they are experiencing.

That’s why actively engaging your customers, listening to the voice of the customer and asking them to share their experiences with you and speaking to them about what they said, accelerates the trust and rapport you have with your customers.

You can get close to your customers by building a service that solves most of their needs, but to really be trusted, you need to offer more by discovering enough information to empathise with your customers from their real experiences, and that comes from listening…actively.

Gareth Rees
Gareth Rees is Head of Service Delivery at Rant & Rave.Rant & Rave provides customer engagement solutions with a difference. Created with the belief that fundamentally brands and consumers want the same thing - to deliver and receive great service - half of the FTSE rely on the Rant & Rave platform to proactively communicate with and listen to the Voice of their customers.


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