Teach employees to show empathy to customers
Yes, You Can Train For Empathy In Customer Service Employees–Situational Empathy. Here’s How.
In customer service training circles, there’s a belief that you can’t train for empathy. In other words, the empathy required by a customer-facing employee is a fixed personality trait, something that an employee either has or doesn’t have. This suggests that if you don’t hire correctly you’re sunk.
This is by and large correct, but only for one type of empathy.
The confusion stems from not understanding that empathy comes in two distinct strains, both hiding within the same word.
Untrainable empathy–empathy as a personality trait–is what psychologists call dispositional empathy. Like other personality traits, it’s by and large set in place as part of an adult’s makeup by the time we reach our mid-twenties. (Yes, there are exceptions to this rule!) That’s why a business will have better luck hiring for, rather than training for, dispositional empathy. (There’s a longer discussion of hiring for dispositional empathy in my new book, Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away); readers can grab three free chapters here.)
The trainable strain of empathy, which I’ll address today, is what psychologists call situational empathy. This is exactly what it sounds like: the ability to react empathically to a specific situation (and, I would add, setting). Situational empathy can both be trained for and enhanced in its delivery via some simple guidelines which I’ll share later in this article.
The way to train for situational empathy is to solve for the most common barriers that are blocking it in your employees. The first of these challenges is when customer-facing employees have never experienced the situation in which the customers at the other end of the telephone line, email, or text (or staring them right in their face) find themselves. You improve this situation by doing everything you can to give your employees a chance to walk in the shoes of your customers.
Case in point in healthcare: the employees who answer the phones and provide scheduling may have no shared personal experience of what the person on the other end of the phone line (who is almost certainly apprehensive and very likely in pain) is up against. These schedulers often work out of a separate, nonclinical building and are therefore unlikely to encounter even a single patient face to face. Likewise, most administrative and clinical employees have never been patients in a hospital themselves, because being an inpatient today requires you to be quite sick, due to insurance-driven “efficiencies” and other factors.
How to solve this disconnect? The training solution I recommend is to simulate clinical moments using role-playing and video to provide an inkling of what it feels like to be a patient.
A different disconnect happens in any industry where employees are striving to provide customer service to high net worth individuals (HNWIs). Here, it’s almost a given that the agents providing the support don’t live lives that resemble the 1%-er daily experiences of their ultra-wealthy clients. While you can’t solve this by loading your employees up with riches, you can invest some of your training efforts toward getting across the concept that everybody has a different feeling for what money means; that although a relatively small expenditure of money might have major consequences for an employee, the equation is very different for an HNWI.
Doing this will help you avoid situations like this one, which Ross Buchmueller, the President and CEO of the PURE Group of Insurance Companies, which provides insurance to high net worth individuals and families, shared with me: overhearing an employee at a similar insurance company (not PURE) telling a high net worth client, “I’d never recommend anyone take a $10,000 deductible, because I could never afford to pay that much myself.” This off-the-cuff comment made perfect sense from that agent’s financial viewpoint, but was likely poor advice for a client who could easily self-insure for that amount or more.
In addition to the areas of training I suggest above, which are designed to create situational empathy, there is a lot that you can teach your employees to do that will convey situational empathy: to draw their attention to cues that either convey or fail to convey empathy to a customer: ways that employees can telegraph empathy to customers and avoid turning those customers off through implied lack of empathy.
Seven cues that convey empathy
1. Make sure that your actions and language are appropriate for the reality that this one interaction with the customer is unique for them, even if you’ve had 45 similar calls today. This is a very important reframing to do before every customer interaction; it will keep you from rushing the customer, using shorthand they don’t understand, and from getting (or at least from sounding) jaded.
My favorite quote on the power of (and need for) this type of reframing comes from a bus-tour operator responding to a keynote speech I was giving at a conference for SYTA (the Student and Youth Travel Association), explaining the attitude he brought to work every day:
‘‘No matter how many times I’ve previously given a tour of the government sites in Washington, D.C., for example, I consciously work to remember that for this group of kids this tour is their ﬁrst and maybe only one.’’
2. Strike any language you’ve been using that might come across as demanding to a customer. When there’s a need for you to ask a customer for information, be sure to phrase your request so it doesn’t sound like a command. Baldly demanding their “Date of Birth?” is less than ideal; “May I have your date of birth?” is a notable improvement, even though it only requires four extra syllables.
3. Avoid anything, verbal or nonverbal, that may come across as putting a customer down, rather than lifting them up.
• Nonverbal: For example in healthcare: the physician whose hand is on the doorknob while patient is still asking questions, the medical students pushing through the halls at breakneck speed, never lifting their eyes from their tablets or clipboards, thus giving off an implication that patients are “other” and don’t know the secret handshake.
• Verbal: Thoughtless use of language is even more of a problem. For example, in a restaurant context: when you begin the seating process for a solo guest you should never ask the demeaning question, “Just one?” with its strong implication of “you should have a big ‘L’ on your forehead, to indicate ‘Loser.”
4. Be realistic and specific about how long things will take you to accomplish. Misunderstandings and assumptions about wait times, delivery times, and process times account for a large proportion of customer complaints. An estimate of “about a day” may seem fine to you, but a customer will hear this as “definitely by this time tomorrow,” which may or may not have been what you meant.
5. Customer service recovery (how you react to customers who complain) is a particularly important place to make sure your cues convey empathy. This requires, for starters, the use of appropriate, non-defensive language; but beyond that, you need a framework for customer service recovery. If you don’t already have a customer service recovery method in place, let me offer my MAMA method for customer service recovery, which you can have as a free, formatted document by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
6. Avoid jargon like the plague. Although jargon is great when used internally (it’s a timesaver and it bonds a group together), it’s very off-putting to customers; it’s a very quick way to make them feel like outsiders (as well as to confuse the heck out of them).
7. Always conduct yourself in a way that acknowledges that time probably moves differently for your customer than it does for you. Cue in to the pacing of the customer with whom you are interacting, as well as considering how their external realities may make the situation call for more urgency than it strikes you as requiring.
Micah Solomon is a customer service and customer experience consultant, keynote speaker and trainer, as well as an executive co-author/ghostwriter and content creator. He was recently named “the World’s #1 Customer Service Turnaround Expert” by Inc. Magazine. Please email Micah directly, visit his website, or read Micah’s new bestseller: Ignore Your Customers (and They’ll Go Away) (HarperCollins Leadership).