“My husband died”: The call center agent’s shocking reply


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While sitting on the panel during a town hall meeting of contact center leaders I was asked by one of the attendees Mary, “I need to improve the empathy skills of my agents, where can I get training for that?” Being a person that loves to help others and hates to give partially correct information, I asked Mary why she felt that way. That’s when she began to tell the story of when a customer told one of her agents that her husband had died.

Her husband died only two days ago

She detailed out a real call situation where a customer called and requested to return a product. The customer explained to Sue, the agent she was speaking with, that she needed to return a product that her husband ordered. The product was unused and still in it’s original packaging. The product was for him, but he suddenly died two days earlier.

As you can only imagine, Mary said when she listened to the recorded call the woman was struggling to speak. Her husband had pasted away only two days earlier and her emotions we’re at the surface and very fragile. Mary even mentioned that she was brought to tears just listening to the call. I am certain the same would have happened to me if I was listening to it.

Mary told us that Sue immediately asked the customer, “…do you have your receipt?” Mary was crushed. She couldn’t believe that Sue never acknowledged the words or feelings of the caller. she just jumped right into processing the return.

Does this agent have a soul?

Mary explained to us that Sue was not a cold person. In fact, she said that Sue was one of the people she would often displaying a caring for others. It was difficult to believe. She is not the type of person to intentionally hurt the feelings of another person. This brought Mary to the conclusion that Sue needed Empathy Training.

What is Empathy?

It’s really important to reveal that Empathy is one of the 54 Emotional Intelligence (EQ) competencies, but it is one of the most popular of them. Just like you, I must ward off the societal influences and pressures to judge people and jump to conclusions and to be apathetic to others. Following many of the societal influences will lower your EQ.

Many people say that as a society empathy is scarce. And that we are raising a generation that is oblivious to feelings of others. as a sociaty we are becoming more socially dysfunctional.

Companies are spending (or losing) money on empathy

Because of this, organizations have to spend more effort and money on ways to increase customer empathy. And they have never really had to invest in building employee empathy skills before. And they have no choice. They must do it because customer experience is now the main point of competitive differentiation. And Empathy is a core component in creating exceptional customer experiences.

But for the record, societal influence is not what caused Sue to behave the way she did. It was something more. Sue was able to show empathy at other times. She could be counted on as one of the people who would show that she cared for others. Sue needed to learn customer empathy.

Be aware that people may misinterpret what applying or displaying empathy is. Certainly displaying empathy is not about being on a 10.5 hour call with a customer who want’s to buy a pair of Ugg Boots. That lunacy is reserved for Zappos’ hall of fame and an attempt at the Guinness Book of World Records.

Building Customer Empathy

Customer Empathy is the skill of understanding how and why customers feel the way they do and to communicate it effectively. If you understand the how and why of customer feelings then you will be better prepared to solve their problems and meet their needs.

There are five things that Mary must do in order to improve the customer empathy skills of her contact center agents. These five things can increase customer empathy and go about engaging customers at a significantly deeper level. Doing these things can help to create more successful moments out of calls like Sue had.

  1. Become a customer (have agents do it) – Go beyond mystery shopping and actually become your customer. Have agents take the time to document every touchpoint and interaction. Pay special attention to what the perception might be if you and they didn’t have your knowledge. Go the extra mile and create a return, escalate a customer service interaction. Take your own survey. You will get an entirely new perspective and hopefully not lose an agent.
  2. Go Beyond Journey Mapping (Do Empathy Mapping) – Have an illustration of how your customers move through different touchpoints and parts of your contact center. But mapping out their experiences in a process driven method is not enough to understand what they feel, what they see, what they say, their fears, and their motivations. In order to connect with their hearts and minds you need Empathy Mapping. Then you can walk through the customer journey and have a greater understanding of how to better engage customers and what you need to do to lower customer dissatisfaction.
  3. Increase your Emotional Intelligence (EQ) – EQ has been proven to contribute greatly to the success of individuals and organizations. Those with higher EQ outperform all others with similar intellectual knowledge. EQ helps you to relate more skillfully with fellow employees and customers. EQ helps you to control your behavior and emotions better. EQ helps you to be more self-aware and prevent being blinded by problems that increase customer effort.
  4. Learn a new language – The words we use can hurt others and prevent people from engaging. Is your business language full of fear invoking behavior? If your office language is full of words like risk, accountability, threats, attrition, turnover, policy, and prohibited, it’s time to stop and look at the behavior that creates. This fear prevents the ability to show customer empathy. It shuts contact center agents down and puts them in survival mode. It’s counterproductive. Make sure you over-use words like opportunity, aspiration, ownership, appreciation, gratitude, hope, trust, and believe instead.
  5. Get your but out of the way – When you use the word “but” it most often is used to kill creative thinking. As a society we have gotten into a bad habit of saying, “Yes, but…” when we reply to a thought or idea that someone has shared. Your “but” is preventing you from experiencing a deeper level of connection and understanding. It is killing your own creativity. Next time when you have the urge to say, “Yes, but…” try to say, “Explain that a little more, so I can understand better.” Then, get ready to learn something.

When customers call your contact center, or anytime you attempt to connect with customers you have an opportunity to engage. As you can see your attempt to engage can be handicapped before it even occurs.

For Mary, increasing customer empathy is more than just teaching people phrases like “I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this problem,” or “I know how frustrating it can be when that happens.” Because just saying those things are not enough when customers keep experiencing the same problems. It’s forced empathy. Scripting empathy is wrong. And customers feel that it’s not authentic and meaningful.

It’s more than just words

Customer empathy is more than words. You must put in the environment and habits that prove you are empathetic. Because empathy only works when it’s genuine.

The best way to prevent forced empathy is to learn how not to have to use those phrases of empathy. That is what these 5 things can do for you. Build a culture of empathy.

Published from Call Center Coach

Jim Rembach
Jim Rembach is recognized as a Top 50 Thought Leader and CX Influencer. He's a certified Emotional Intelligence practitioner and host of the Fast Leader Show podcast and president of Call Center Coach, the world's only virtual blended learning academy for contact center supervisors and emerging supervisors. He’s a founding member of the Customer Experience Professionals Association’s CX Expert Panel, Advisory Board Member for Customer Value Creation International (CVCI), and Advisory Board Member for CX University.


  1. I’d love to learn more about Customer Empathy. How can I learn more about this? Is there any other article?

  2. Kashif, I cover this topic a lot on the Fast Leader Show Podcast (www.fastleader.net) and at Beyond Morale (www.beyondmorale.com). Best of luck, Jim

  3. I think this is also important not just when it comes to customer and agent contact but also within the call center leaders and owners as well. There are call center companies in our country, the Philippines that don’t compensate their employees well, have bad medical benefits but demand so much and then you have the insensitive supervisors and trainers that like to power trip and be political towards agents. Hence people now prefer to work from home. We get paid more working in the comforts of our home and we don’t get to kiss ass. It’s seen that call center industry will go down within the next 5 years. I used to be a call center agent and so is my husband. He’s working in the industry for more than a decade. It sucks being handled by a “team leader” that lacks empathy but likes to power trip.

  4. Kudos to Jim for writing such a detailed article highlighting one of the most underrated and crucial aspect many call centers tend to ignore. This article helped out a lot. Thank you so much.


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