Empathy Matters


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With 34 high-school and college kids standing in line to leave, the lady behind the counter said the words that you never want to hear, “This passport is not allowed to travel.” Then she said the name – and it was mine. New rules state that you cannot enter Honduras if the passport expires within the next 90 days (check your passport now if you are planning to travel soon). Mine was set to expire in 86 days. I had made the decision to wait to renew it until after we returned, due to the chaos of the passport renewal process that everyone has heard about.

But this article is not about the inane rules that mandate that a passport expires 90 days before the expiration date on the document, this article is about the treatment that I received at the gate. Over a 45 minute discussion and check-in process not one time did the agent show any empathy or understanding of the situation. She did not say that she understood my frustration; she did not say she was sorry the rules could not be changed; she did not apologize that there was no manager available. She basically just stated the rules over and over – without even a hint of empathy.

As I walked away from the counter and watched as the other chaperones lead the kids and my entire family to security, I could not stop thinking – wow, that lady was so rude. But as I write about the situation, I realize that she was really not rude – but just indifferent to what I was feeling. If she had just responded with some human emotion; if she had just made me feel that she wished she could help me. But, that was not the case. Instead I walked away from the Continental desk with the belief that customer service has reached a new low and that this specific employee – and perhaps the airline in general – had failed to understand that, while rules are expected to be followed, there is also a rule of basic customer service that says – show empathy to your customers.

I can only imagine how many times each week she deals with enforcing rules that customers do not like to hear. What she needed was someone to show her how to engage in the “skill” of empathy rather than the “feeling” of empathy. There are some basic words that we can teach our frontline employees that can be magic for a customer. I “understand” is a magic word. I understand you are upset; I understand that you are frustrated; I understand how you feel. The situation would have felt so much different if she had just let me know that she was human. I can understand that she may have become a little callous to the feelings of customers, but if she had been taught to use the skill of empathy – the magic of “understand” and “sorry” I would have still been upset – but I would not have left the counter thinking that she just did not care.

What have you done to teach your employees the skill of empathy?

Authors note: I did eventually make it to Honduras with the team. It took a plane ride to Chicago (thanks to the Northwest agent who was extra nice) and a special dispensation at the passport office but 24 hours later I was on the plane to Honduras. Which airline do you think I will choose the next time I fly? And, once there I had an amazing time of service to people that need so much – and they ended up giving me back much more than I gave them. My concern with passports seems minor in comparison.

Copyright © 2007 Bob Furniss – All Rights Reserved.
For more information about how you can have Bob speak at one of your next meetings or workshops visit www.touchpointassociates.com.


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