If empathy is so important, why aren’t we hearing more of it in customer service?


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In VereQuest’s contact center quality assurance practice, we have been listening to, reading, and analyzing calls, emails, and chat sessions for almost two decades. It’s was no surprise to us when a recent PWC survey noted that “59% of global consumers felt that companies had lost touch with the human element of customer experience”. We first recognized the critical role empathy plays in creating memorable and engaging customer interactions – in an analytical way – around 2009, and we haven’t stopped talking about it since.

“59% of global consumers felt that companies had lost touch with the human element of customer experience”

At the beginning of 2020, COVID-19 disrupted our lives and our businesses at a level most of us have not experienced before. In a few short months (although it seems so much longer!) we saw an extraordinary shift in human behavior which made the PR-frenzy that followed predictable. Companies across all industries adopted the mantra: “We’re here for you”. But we all know that intent is so much simpler than follow-through and keeping this promise has been hard to do.

Revenues are down. Budgets have been slashed. People have been laid off. Companies are still struggling to serve customers while at the same time keep their employees safe. Supply chains have been disrupted. Shareholders need to be calmed. People are afraid and confused. The business environment we work in today – and in the foreseeable future – has changed and will never be the same. In fact, consumer behavior has changed so much that, according to the 2020 Most Motivating Brand Index, only 8% of consumers said they will go back to the way they once behaved.

There is no question that empathy matters more now than ever before. Beyond this, we have known for some time that empathy – as a tool — works. It works to calm an upset customer. It lets an engaged customer know we value them. Empathy helps move an undecided customer to a commitment. It adds a dimension of ‘human-ness’ into an environment often dominated by technology. And ultimately creates greater customer loyalty.

If empathy is so important, then why don’t we hear more of it in our customer service and sales interactions?

Barriers to Genuine Empathy

From our work, we have found that there are typically 6 barriers to demonstrating empathy:

1. Agents have been directed to focus on other things: We ask our frontline agents to do a lot of things. And so, if expressing empathy isn’t one of them, it goes without saying that you are unlikely to hear it.

2. Agents don’t know how to be empathetic: Most agents understand what empathy is intellectually, but struggle with how to introduce it into the conversation in a natural, sincere way. Or, they confused sympathy “I’m sorry for the inconvenience” with empathy “I’m sorry for the inconvenience. I can imagine this has been frustrating for you.” Anyone can script an empathetic response; however, customers can smell disingenuous empathy a mile away. Expressing empathy is a complicated skill that requires practice. If you don’t already have explicit empathy training in place, consider adding it to your course curriculum. Check out VereQuest’s customizable, SCORM-compliant e-learning.

3. Agents have forgotten to be empathetic: This is where ongoing quality monitoring and coaching comes into play. Typically, agents are so anxious to solve a customer’s issue, they forget to connect with the customer and instead jump right to the solution. Expressing empathy doesn’t take a lot of time – just a few seconds – but can change the whole dynamic of an interaction. Don’t have enough time for quality monitoring? Download VereQuest’s guide to outsourcing contact center QA.

4. Agents are exhausted being empathetic: We can all understand this dynamic, particularly in certain industries that have been bombarded by anxious, frustrated, and confused customers. Everyone handles pressure of this type differently. The key is to recognize when this is happening and provide the coaching and support needed on an individual basis.

5. Agents are uncomfortable being empathetic: For some people, expressing empathy makes them feel like they are being overly intrusive or inappropriate. This is particularly true with offshore agents. They may feel that they will be putting themselves at risk emotionally and are uncomfortable doing that. Others may have a tendency to be contrary and pushback at anything new. (We all know who they are!)

The key is to take the intellectual leap and think of yourself in someone else’s situation – without taking on the emotional baggage associated with it.

From our work we have found that most agents want to engage customers, however, there are situations that cause them to emotionally shut-down. One common example is when a customer is angry and raising their voice. In the chart below, the bar on the left demonstrates that, when a customer is pleasant, agents are comfortable responding in kind with genuine, caring empathy. However, when a customer is already upset, they find empathy a challenge. Remember, as I said earlier, expressing empathy has the greatest impact when a customer is upset.

True empathy involves using our feelings to understand the feelings of someone else. So, for example, if an angry customer is complaining because someone did not call back as promised, you can understand WHY they would feel that way and even imagine yourself waiting impatiently for a callback WITHOUT becoming angry or frustrated yourself. The key is to take the intellectual leap and think of yourself in someone else’s situation – without taking on the emotional baggage associated with it.

6. Agents aren’t naturally empathetic: It’s true. We all have them. Agents that find it difficult to think about the needs of anyone else before their own. In fact, we may have children of our own like that as well! Since the mid 60’s with the introduction of the PBX, our contact centers have been largely staffed by Boomers and Gen X. Today, it is the Millennials – those born between 1977 and 1995 – who make up the majority of the labor force and dominant our contact centers. And they will dominate for years to come. And so it begs the question: Are Millennials naturally empathetic?

You may have read or heard about a controversial article published in Time magazine in 2013 that concluded that “Millennials have a stronger sense of entitlement than other groups currently in the workforce” and “they tend to be more narcissistic”. The article went on to state that “58% more college students scored higher on a narcissism scale in 2009 than in 1982.” It stands to reason, then, that with the rise of privilege, entitlement, and narcissism, a drop in empathy would ensue. But that’s not what we are seeing. While Millennials may not be naturally empathetic, there was something else that researchers found: “Millennials are more accepting of differences, not just among gays, women, and minorities but in everyone” and this makes Millennials very coachable when it comes to empathy.

How to Keep Empathy at the Forefront?

These are different times that require a more consistent approach to coaching. More people than ever will be working remotely. Additionally, our team is having to deal with a wide range of issues in business and in their personal life. The customers they interact with are facing the same challenges, causing them to be more frustrated, stressed, and concerned. And so where do you start? Here are 6 things you can do NOW to improve empathy within your contact center:

1 – Have a coaching plan – Talk about empathy more often. Plan more frequent touchpoints, coaching sessions, and feedback that acts as both a reminder and motivator. This is particularly true for agents working remotely.

2 – Training – Empathy is a challenging skill to learn and so giving agents the ability to progress at their own pace is important. e-Learning is ideal for that and also allows you to track progress and test comprehension. Make sure your e-learning includes a lot of realistic examples from your business and/or industry.

3 – Roleplaying – Roleplaying closes the gap between theoretical training and real-life. It provides agents with a ‘safe’ practice environment – as opposed to having them practice on customers! Roleplaying common and critical scenarios give the agent a chance to experience what it will be like on-the-job.

4 – Quality Monitoring – If you haven’t already done so, add empathy to your quality monitoring efforts. Nothing works better than regular reinforcement. Like all QA criteria, it is vital that you document it well so everyone has a common understanding of what to expect.

5 – ‘Best Practice’ Library – Team leaders and agents alike find listening to best practice examples – from your own environment – extremely helpful. Start collecting them and making them available to everyone.

6 – Peer Coaching – You can never do too much coaching, particularly when working with remote agents. With that in mind, consider introducing Peer coaching principles into the mix. Create small teams of 2 or 4 and have them review each others’ calls and provide support. Or designate an agent who has mastered the skill as a ‘subject matter expert’ that agents can reach out to for support when needed.

7 – Lead by example – Perhaps the most important thing you can do is to lead by example. For so many reasons, it’s important to become accustomed to demonstrating empathy in everyday life – with your friends and family, customers, and each other. When you actively engage empathy with everyone around you, it will naturally flow through to customers.

Empathy is not an initiative.

In our new world, empathy needs to be engrained in the way we do business and how we interact with our customers and each other. It is my hope that we ALL work to help companies keep the promises they make during these difficult times – and for years to come.

Sharon Oatway
Sharon Oatway is a Customer Service, Sales and Marketing professional with more than three decades of hands-on experience elevating the overall customer experience along with multi-channel contact center performance.As President & Chief Experience Officer of VereQuest, Sharon and her team have listened to/read and analyzed several million customer interactions for some of North America’s leading brands.As a result, Sharon is a recognized thought-leader in what it takes to build and sustain great customer experiences.


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