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Three ways to encourage empathy in CX during a crisis

Posted June 2, 2020
Encouraging empathy in CX

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed how and where so many people around the world are working, and contact center agents are no exception.

Instead of working alongside colleagues in large and fully-equipped delivery centers, many of them are now powering on laptops alone from home offices. Instead of fitting in a workout before their shift, they are likely juggling childcare, homeschooling and other household duties, while confined to their homes.

These customer service agents face the same life-sized stressors and uncertainties as the customers they serve, and company leadership can’t expect them to continue to work as if nothing has changed. If left unchecked and unaddressed, the added stress and anxiety they are experiencing will affect them, leading to degraded customer experiences and long-term brand damage. Additionally, dealing with customers who are likely more frustrated in the current climate when seeking customer support can also greatly increase stress levels for agents trying to balance their own mental and emotional well-being.

The traditional rules of customer support are in an extreme state of flux right now, says Syed Hasan, executive vice-president and GM for market research and consultancy LRWs CX practice, which builds loyalty programs for large brands. “In times like these, empathy is as important as efficiency,” Hasan says.

That includes agents’ empathy toward customers, and business leaders’ empathy toward their employees. In order for brands to avoid damaging their business reputation and CX in the short and long-term, they must highlight the importance of empathy in every customer interaction. At the same time, and of equal importance, CX leaders must model the behaviors they hope to see in their frontline agents, adapting their approaches to coaching and leading in ways that positively impact the broader organizational culture.

The importance of empathetic communication with customers

The pandemic and how it has disrupted businesses has placed us all in uncharted territory. There’s no playbook for how to manage a customer service operation during this unprecedented time.

That’s why open dialogue and consistent communication are so important. Coaching team members to model empathy with customers can be more challenging in remote environments, but it’s never been more important, says customer experience expert and New York Times bestselling business author Shep Hyken.

Customers reaching out for support may be more stressed than usual. And while agents may be feeling the same way, it’s their job to offer a solution — and not be part of their problem. So, even with heightened emotions, customer support professionals must be able to answer questions and resolve problems with empathy and patience, neither of which can be scripted.

It may seem counter-intuitive, but relying on open dialogue rather than a script is hard work that Hyken says requires practice and consistent reinforcement. “Support teams must be reminded and coached [on] these soft skills on an ongoing basis — even daily — if we want to create a consistent positive customer service experience,” he says.

How leaders can model empathy with team members

If agents are expected to demonstrate empathy during a crisis, they themselves must feel supported by their leaders and company.

That’s why leaders should strive to maintain an ongoing dialogue and open lines of communication with employees. Team leaders should schedule time in their calendars to perform simple check ins on their team members’ well-being, helping them to navigate their concerns so that they feel that organizational and personal support.

When leaders do connect with team members, the conversation shouldn’t be business as usual. “Most people are running from task to task and don’t have space to sit with their emotions,” says Joey Coleman, speaker and CX expert at customer retention consultancy Design Symphony. By modeling empathetic behavior themselves, Coleman says leaders “don’t only show empathy, but it creates the opportunity to build rapport, especially if you reciprocate by honestly sharing what you’re feeling.”

The validation of openly acknowledging team members’ emotional challenges is an important part of the feedback loop that will in turn nourish the customer experience. It encourages agents to practice active listening to customers’ challenges and to be available and responsive to clients in an empathetic way. These are always important behaviors, but absolutely critical at a time when emotions are heightened and customers may be more likely to consider switching to a competitor.

When agents are successful at modeling compassionate behavior with customers, Hyken says it’s important to share success stories in a relatable way. “Use agents’ stories to showcase the right — and sometimes the wrong — way to handle a customer issue with empathy, tact and grace,” says Hyken. “That way, when a colleague’s great example is shared with the team, they think, ‘I can do that, too.’”

Rethink organizational values to support empathy

In many instances, team members may recognize that the most empathetic customer responses stray from the script. Put another way, “policies aren’t for pandemics,” Coleman says, arguing that now is the time to loosen unnecessary policies wherever possible. “Everyone is experiencing hurt and struggle in their own way. The more you can seek to find win/win scenarios, the happier your customers will be.”

During difficult times, customers may bristle at scripts, and they definitely don’t want to be treated like a number. To that end, Hasan says now is the time to get away from using legacy KPIs like Average Handle Time. “It is tough to think about being empathetic when you have to get off a call in 120 seconds,” he says. Instead, during the pandemic, Hasan says businesses can use their CX programs to build rapport, checking in on customers and asking about their feelings, without any time constraints or sales-related agenda.

Many organizations will find that re-focusing on empathy as an organizational value leads to broader change. Rewarding team members for extraordinarily empathetic behavior during difficult times will encourage that same behavior when things have settled down.

In many ways, the current crisis provides a perfect time to create a truly customer-focused empathetic culture. “Your customers will remember how you treat them during this coronavirus pandemic,” Coleman says. “By practicing empathy now, not only will you be doing the right thing in this stressful and painful time, but you’ll be laying a foundation for a deeper relationship after the pandemic ends.”

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