The problem with empathy


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Service FailureEarlier this year, I read a book by a colleague of mine, Jeff Toister, titled Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It.

As the book’s subtitle suggests, Jeff explores common obstacles that prevent customers from experiencing exceptional customer service: broken systems, employee disengagement, incongruent service culture, insufficient communication, and others. And rather than leave readers guessing about next steps, Jeff offers field-tested suggestions to overcome these obstacles. Applying his advice will create a better work environment for employees and an improved service experience for customers.

For the purpose of this review, I’d like to concentrate on one obstacle from Chapter 9: The Problem with Empathy. In this chapter, Jeff makes an astute observation: “Many employees lack the fundamental experiences upon which empathy is built. They find it hard to understand their customers’ emotions, or they may fail to grasp the importance of addressing these emotions when a service failure occurs. They may not even realize that their customers’ perspective is different from their own and miss out on opportunities to serve because they can only see the world through their own eyes.”

To illustrate this observation in action, here’s a true story I heard from friends who stayed with us last month: While traveling from Washington, D.C. to Denver through Dallas with three young children (ages 2, 6, and 8), their connecting flight to Denver was canceled. As a result, they were forced to spend four hours in the Dallas airport before boarding an alternate flight to Denver. Although their seats on the original flight had been blocked together, on the new flight due to an aircraft change, the airline was unable to accommodate their original seat assignments.

While boarding the flight with their restless children, our friends were forced to scramble for seats that were together. This required asking passengers who were comfortably situated to give up their coveted window or aisle seats so that a parent could sit next to a child. David and Beth, throughout the ordeal, were forced to endure the assessing glances of passengers and flight attendants labeling them as disorganized and unprepared. As our friends described it, “We were now those parents.”

I wonder how many of the flight attendants or passengers, as opposed to thinking the worst of David and Beth, thought to themselves, “I bet their original flight was canceled and they had to keep those children entertained in the airport for four hours during the delay. And, because this aircraft is probably different from their original aircraft, they’re now having to scramble to locate seats that will allow a parent to sit next to a child.”

My hunch: not many. And therein lies the problem—the obstacle preventing David and Beth from experiencing exceptional customer service.

While the attitudes of other customers are beyond your control, it’s possible to influence the attitudes of employees in these types of situations by, in Jeff’s words, “(Sharing) stories and testimonials (like this one) from real customers to remind your employees how delivering great service can make their customers feel understood and acknowledged.”

Discover more common obstacles that prevent customers from experiencing the exceptional customer service they deserve, as well as Jeff’s experience-based suggestions to overcome them. Pick up a copy of his book, Service Failure: The Real Reasons Employees Struggle with Customer Service and What You Can Do About It, wherever books are sold.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Steve Curtin
Steve Curtin is the author of Delight Your Customers: 7 Simple Ways to Raise Your Customer Service from Ordinary to Extraordinary. He wrote the book to address the following observation: While employees consistently execute mandatory job functions for which they are paid, they inconsistently demonstrate voluntary customer service behaviors for which there is little or no additional cost to their employers. After a 20-year career with Marriott International, Steve now devotes his time to speaking, consulting, and writing on the topic of extraordinary customer service.


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