Empathy or Apathy in the Contact Centre?


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I was talking to Jamie Lywood, of Harding & Yorke recently. Jamie’s company works on empathy – ’empathy architects’ they call themselves. Customer empathy is the sense of rapport (that you are on their side and understand them) and, as a result, loyalty, that customers feel when they contact your organization. Their research shows that a one point increase in customer empathy leads to a 16.4 point increase in financial returns.

The discussion with Jamie reinforced in my mind one of the core points we focus on at Smith+co, which is that much of the average contact centre customer experience damages rather than strengthens empathy. And that this is directly correlated to customer value.

People hate IVR systems

Take the IVR (Interactive Voice Response) system. The vast majority of these do nothing to build empathy. The same goes for most company’s on-hold messages. How about that old chestnut “Due to unusually high call volumes all our advisors are busy at the moment, but please hold as your call is important to us.” Yeah right, so unusual in fact that we have created a recorded message in anticipation of the event and you are so important we figure your time is less important than our manning levels.

In fact, customers generally find IVRs and hold messages a significant source of frustration. Evidence of this came recently when ‘how to get past the IVR system’ codes went up on the Net and received mass media coverage. Savvy customers the world over learnt that they could often get past the whole process by punching in a particular number – often not publicised by the companies themselves – to speak to a real person. For many organizations ‘0’ bypasses the IVR. Other organizations have their own code, which customers gleefully raided from the Net posting.

Time to seize the advantage

If brands want to build a differentiated customer experience then you need to look at every element of your contact centre to seize the advantage here. There is a compelling case for building competitive advantage at relatively little or no cost in these overlooked areas of the customer experience. In fact we have built an ROI model that looks at the cost efficiencies that come from the latest agent desktop software like Cincom’s CEM + Synchrony and the increased revenues that flow from creating a better customer experience. For many organisations the ROI of making your contact centre an integral part of your customer experience is significant. Our partner Peter Simpson will be publishing a white paper on this in a few weeks.

See the graph below for an example of the impact on the customer base of introducing CEM into the contact centre:

Impact of CEM on customer base

My colleague Phil Dourado has two examples of how to do it, which we share below:

1. The On-hold message that says “Relax”

“I gave a keynote talk at the Contact Center Planning Forum recently on how to improve the customer journey. It was at a Novotel. When I called the hotel to check my room was booked, I got an on-hold message that was designed to reflect the values of Novotel, which is all about big spaces to relax in with natural light.

So, the on-hold message said to me something like this:

Life is stressful enough. While you are waiting for an agent, take these few seconds to breathe deep, refocus, relax, refresh.”

Too many organizations might think a branded on-hold experience means having a recorded sales message. That isn’t a pleasurable customer experience. It’s doubly irritating to be kept waiting and then have corporate messages thrown at you while you are a captive audience.

But, the whole idea of adapting your on-hold message to reflect your company values, as Novotel has done is…refreshing.

2. The IVR message that makes you smile

The Geek Squad used to have an IVR system that said something like this: “Press 1 for…Press 2 for…Press 3 for…etc.” Then, “Press five to hear a PC that has stopped working being fired from a cannon into a lake full of hungry piranha fish.” When you pressed 5, you heard an explosion, a whoosh, a splash and what sounded like a piranha feeding frenzy.

What that option says is “We know how frustrating it is for you when your PC stops working. Have a little fun with it to de-stress.” It’s small but memorable – and low-cost, incidentally – things like customizing your on-hold message to actually add value to the customer that will, step by step, move us towards next generation distinctive experiences delivered through the contact centre.”

Phil asked the 450 or so people in the conference room where he was presenting if they used on-hold messages and IVR systems. They all put their hands up, of course. He then asked them if they used customized messages that reflected their organization’s values, or that added value to the customer, or at least were memorable for being different. No hand went up.

For some organizations whose business model involves the majority of their customer contact coming through the contact centre – some insurance companies, for example – up to 90% of the customer’s perception of the brand is created by their experience when they deal with your contact centre.

This is a massive opportunity. At smith+co we are pioneering methods for creating a distinctive, branded, positive customer experience through your call centre. Do contact us to discuss how we could help you in this critical area.

Shaun Smith
Shaun Smith is the founder of Smith+Co the leading UK based Customer Experience consultancy. Shaun speaks and consults internationally on the subject of the brand purpose and customer experience. Shaun's latest book 'On Purpose- delivering a branded customer experience people love' was co-written with Andy Milligan.


  1. Shaun: The past ten or so times that I’ve received poor service from a call center agent, I’ve asked this question: “have you ever used your own support line?” I have yet to receive an affirmative answer.

    Why? Wouldn’t call center agents be more empathetic if their training included making a dozen or more calls to their own toll-free number, posing as a customer with a specific problem? Could it enable them to understand the “experience” an actual caller might have, as well as understanding the circumstances that prompted the call in the first place?

  2. Hello Shaun,

    I fully agree with you that companies need to treat the contact center as an integrated part of the Customer Experience. Contact Centers are too often treated as mere cost-centers. The value center approach has focused too much only on up- & cross-selling capabilities, missing out on great opportunities as you rightfully advocate in your post.

    Nevertheless I believe the IVR has great potential to contribute positively to the Customer (Service) Experience if one takes the Customer’s desired outcome of a Customer service question or request as a starting point.

    Please see my post on the Customer Think blog here and let me know what you think.

    Thanks in advance,

    Wim Rampen


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