Empathy: A Vital Quality for Customer Service Agents

You can be surprised for all the times you use the word empathy… How did that word get into our vocabulary? This is due to the world of Customer Relations, but also in the HR world and, more broadly, in the managerial literature. Everyone uses it.


But, what is the definition of empathy?

Empathy is the ability to feel an appropriate emotion in response to that expressed by others, while clearly distinguishing between oneself and others and being able to regulate one’s own emotional responses.

We must not confuse empathy with “emotional contagion”, which is the fact of experiencing the same emotional state as another person without keeping the distance between oneself and others. The typical example is the crisis of laughter or, in a less pleasant register, collective panic movements.

Many consumers complain that customer service agents do not make enough effort to understand their demands and do not take enough account of their feelings (anger, dissatisfaction). On the other hand, when agents apologize and recognize that a problem really exists, customer satisfaction increases significantly.

A recent study confirms this… Consumers who use an instant customer relationship channel such as chat are more satisfied with their customer experience if agents use emoticons and respond quickly to questions. Those who use emoticons are perceived as more compassionate.

This study concludes that empathy and responsiveness are necessary conditions for successful interactions between customer service agents and consumers.


Why is empathy so important for customer service agents?

Empathy allows us to show/make others feel that we understand them without allowing us to be “contaminate” by their emotions. Not being contaminated preserves our ability to act to help others. This is obvious in painful situations: if someone hurts badly in front of us, we are undeniably more useful to him if we go to seek help, than if we collapse in tears by his side… And when we act, we put our own emotions at a distance, so that we are less affected our self and even more able to act.

From this point of view, it is not very difficult to understand why empathy is one of the most sought-after qualities by companies in the customer service agents, knowing that not all individuals have the same empathy abilities. Those who are naturally empathic have a double advantage: they are more appreciated by clients because they give them the impression of being understood; they are more resistant to pressure because they are more oriented towards “action” and “solution” and do not allow themselves to be “affected” by the situation of the clients.

In fact, we could say the same thing about all the professions where one is confronted with people in situations of suffering or distress. These professionals are forced to “shield themselves” against their emotions to keep up the momentum. Hence the impression that they can sometimes give to lack sensitivity and to take refuge in a “cold professionalism”. It is their experience that protects them by allowing them to better assess the emotions of the other.

While we consider empathy as an essential quality in the relational professions, and therefore in the Customer Relationship, we tend to think that it is an innate quality. Although scientists confirm that we are not equal in this area, they also show that the context and the social-environmental factors count a lot in the development or on the contrary the inhibition of empathy.


Many companies do not really promote the development of this quality in individuals. Here, 3 major inhibitors of empathy:

  1. Processes centered on the company and not on the customers.

The biggest thing of the companies is to impose on the customers’ rules and logic that they cannot understand because they are first put in place for internal reasons of rationalization. How can an agent empathize with a client if they are forced to comply with “rational” rules from a business perspective, but which fundamentally do not consider the customer experience? Of course, it takes rules and processes! However, it should not avoid the possibility of expressing themselves both on the client’s side and on the adviser’s side.


  1. A narrow vision of responsibilities.

If a highly empathic agent will be better able than others to resolve complicated situations with high emotional content, he or she must be provided with leeway and means of action – for example, the freedom to compensate a client without referring to his or her hierarchy, or to investigate internally to find out why the situation arrived at this point of blockage. Without this freedom of action (which must obviously be defined), the most emphatic agent will soon lose his personal tranquility before solving the client’s problem and, instead of blossoming, his empathy will eventually wither.


  1. Modesty and emotional ignorance.

By considering companies as rational machines populated by rational individuals serving other rational individuals, one would almost forget that human relations are above all emotional. If not, would we spend so much energy and dollars to incorporate an emotional dimension into conversational robots?

Today, emotions are heavily used in advertising and marketing, but as soon as we talk about making room for them in the business, the game is closed: you do not think about it! We will not consider the “moods” of customers and employees! Well, we think exactly the opposite! And we are convinced that the more we know about the functioning of the brain and emotions, the more we will go towards an emotional and empathic management.

The importance of being more empathetic.

Empathy plays a central role in delivering a quality customer experience. Face to face or over the phone, it is easier to show empathy because certain physical expressions or certain signals like a change of intonation do not deceive.

However, more and more interactions are now done through digital channels, and trying to understand how to pass emotions is more complicated.


Here are three ways to show empathy:

  1. Play on immediacy.

An interactive channel like chat allows agents to respond almost in real time to their customers. Unlike email that requires a precise and concise answer, chat has the advantage that it allows to clarify the concern encountered, in the same way that would be done over the phone or in a face-to-face conversation. These complementary elements will make it possible to bring a personalized answer, based on their precise needs.


  1. Use emoticons.

Emoticons are an interesting way to show empathy towards the customer. At the same time, trying to use a language like that used by the client will reinforce this proximity.

But beware, this requires training agents: it will not apply to all customers. If young people are already familiar with the use of emoticons, older audiences will certainly be less comfortable with that. In any case, it is important not to use language that is too formal or too familiar, but to show that the client’s complaint is taken seriously.


  1. Use linguistics.

Language technology, based on the scientific study of language, can help agents understand the emotional context of customer demands in real time. It analyzes the incoming interactions automatically (e-mails or tweets, for example), prioritizes them according to the tone used or keywords, and communicates them to the agent best trained to answer this type of request, by suggesting answers to him relevant. This technology makes it possible to respond in an immediate and ultra-personalized way.


To end…

When you sincerely feel empathy with your clients, you convey a sense of attention and understanding. In customer service circles there is a quote that says: “They do not care how much you know until they know how much you care.”

When a client believes that you really care about their situation or problem, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before, you’re on the way to creating a satisfied customer.

17 Responses to “Empathy: A Vital Quality for Customer Service Agents”

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