Empathy is quickly becoming yet another hollow buzzword in business circles around the world. Several businesses treat it as a goal they can achieve so that they can humble-brag about it in their marketing. Many others train their employees on empathy statements they can memorize to show that they care.
Empathy is not a business metric that businesses can measure. But oh, well, that’s how the cookie crumbles in the business world.
Just to be clear, it is worth every bit of your time to practice empathy with your customers and train your employees to be more empathetic. It’s especially invaluable to coach your customer service teams on the value of being empathetic because they are the ones who experience the whole spectrum of customers’ feelings on a day to day basis.
When customer service meets empathy, you have a winning combination to truly care about your customers and build lasting relationships with them. It gives your customer service employees the superpower to relate to their customers’ feelings. With that in mind, here is a solid guide on how to practice empathy in customer service.
Let’s start by calling out the obvious one out:
1. Don’t go by the script
You can’t templatize empathy with shallow empathy statements and boilerplate phrases to feign warmth in your customer service. While it’s good to have a handy list of phrases and best practices on how to respond to customers with a specific set of problems, it’s always better to practice empathy naturally and from within. It has to come from a place of compassion and understanding.
As a rule of thumb, empower your employees to go off the script and respond to customers in a way that’s non-judgmental, contextual, and helpful. If genuinely empathizing with a customer means bending the rules, so be it.
Nordstrom, one of America’s biggest retailer stores, exemplifies this by giving their employees carte blanche authority to do as they please. When new employees join the Nordstrom team, they don’t have to sit through a marathon of employee training sessions. Instead of a thick wad of policy manuals, Nordstrom gives its recruits a single 5-8-inch employees handbook that just outlines just One Rule:
“Use good judgment in all situations.”
As a result of this, Nordstrom employees often go out of their ways to help customers in the most genuine way that’s known to them. It is things like this that have helped Nordstrom rank among the top fashion retailers in the U.S. despite their upscale brand positioning.
Empathy makes your customer service shine out, especially when you don’t force policies and empathy in customer service interactions. The rote way of serving your customers makes your brand look robotic and lacking human touch.
2. Train your customer service reps
The good thing about the challenge of fostering empathy in customer service is: it can be learned. If you look at the relationship between a brand and its customers without the transactional variables involved, you will see that there are humans at both ends of the spectrum. This perspective, visible through the lens of the First Principles, means that businesses are social byproducts that exist when humans try to create an impact on the lives of other humans.
You might not realize it, but empathy is often already embedded in the foundation of your business. You just need to look inwards and embolden that organizational empathy without restraint. It starts by training your customer service representatives to be more empathetic in the day to day lives.
Help them to hone their active listening skills. Organize workshops to teach them how to bring their whole selves to work in order to be more authentic and appreciative. Remind them of the healing impact that their work has on other people’s lives. Customer service reps are no less of the heroes than 911 first responders, therapists, firemen, or rescue operators — patient, quick to act, and compassionate.
You might also want to make changes in your hiring standards to ensure you recruit people who are naturally predisposed to exhibit a heightened sense of emotional quotient in them. This way, you don’t have to spend a lot of time training your customer service reps on how to be more empathetic. The more you hire people who are emotionally intelligent, the more likely it becomes a norm across your organization.
3. Commit to empathy
Empathy is not something that is limited to your customer service department. It is a value system that reflects on your brand culture. Contrary to what most businesses believe, the first place to start applying empathy is not in the customer support front, but in your company leadership. Like all other organizational cultures, empathy flows from the top. You have to make it your business’ core value in order to realize its impact on people’s lives.
When business leaders decree empathy as a departmental function and fail to internalize it across the organization, it creates an integrity gap. It means you don’t practice what you preach, and most often than not, employees and customers can see through the hypocrisy of such things. Instead of building a culture of empathy, you end up creating a culture that works on lip service and double-standard.
Encourage and practice empathy in all aspects of life, not just when you are dealing with customers. Start by creating an employee-first culture; they are your first customers after all. Build an auditing system to keep your integrity gaps under check. Empathy is a high-level problem; you can’t embrace empathy when you have fundamental issues that can drag you down.
If you have logistical problems such as low internal bandwidth in your customer service, address it. Outsource your customer service to experts who are resourceful, accountable, and experienced. Re-frame your perception of the customer service department as a cost center to a profit center, i.e., if you do things right. When you do it well, empathy boosts business creativity.
4. Empathy has a compounding effect
Once you overcome the doublespeak of empathy as yet another shallow word thrown around in business circles, you will understand that it’s the core foundation of any human relationship. But there is no switch you can turn on or off to start applying empathy in customer service. Instead, empathy includes a full spectrum of human emotions that your business has to deal with.
Luckily, practicing empathy is like an investment — the more committed you are to it, the bigger its returns. Empathy can be your keystone business trait that can lead you to achieve all other vital metrics such as customer satisfaction, customer delight, and customer loyalty. Your seemingly small but unselfish act of empathy to your customers has the potential to turn into your certain competitive advantage.
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