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The empathy solution: Four strategies for developing compassion in your agents

Posted April 19, 2018
Contact center agents on call

At the heart of every successful contact center is the ability to relate to customers.

Every agent has a choice when a customer is frustrated or upset: show empathy and connect with them on an emotional level to build loyalty and trust, or simply go through the motions to end the interaction as quickly as possible and risk losing them for good.

Developing compassion in your frontline agents factors into training, everyday customer interactions and overall contact-center strategy. Often, agents who are able to show empathy are the first line of defense against a subpar customer experience. Here are four ways to develop empathy, and the many reasons why this approach can have a positive impact on your brand.

1. Becoming the customer

“There’s a big difference between sympathy and empathy,” says John Asher, CEO of growth-strategy consulting firm Asher Strategies and author of the book Close Deals Faster. “Sympathy is an expression of regret, but empathy is the ability to understand where someone’s coming from and respond accordingly,” he says. “The worse the customer’s problem the more empathy you need to show.”

According to Asher, using empathy as a customer service strategy starts during the hiring process. He recommends that brands use assessment tests to measure the natural empathy in customer service agents. “If they don’t have a lot of it, they’ll have to stretch their personalities,” Asher says, which can be stressful and less likely to produce high customer satisfaction.

Mike Kendall, who led customer transformation efforts for companies for 25 years before starting his advisory business, The Customer Lab, agrees that empathy is a powerful customer experience (CX) tool. For Kendall, training agents to empathize requires that companies “give the pain a name.” By presenting agents with case studies about real customers and real products, brands can expose them to actual customer situations that allow them to practice this skill.

Virtual experience centers, listening booths, call transcripts, customer letters and video are all helpful for getting agents in the customer mindset, but nothing compares to being a customer themselves. “Have your reps set up an account of their own (with your company or product) and actually try it,” Kendall adds. “That way agents realize the emotional journey customers go through.”

2. Acknowledge emotion

Whether they’re reacting to a service, product or experience, Kendall says customers tend to lead with emotion. It plays a role in purchasing decisions, customer recommendations and reviews — so acknowledging a caller’s emotions is another important step toward achieving satisfaction.

Michele McGovern, a longtime editor of multiple customer service industry newsletters, explains that successfully showing empathy is about “reading your audience.” While some customers want to hear that agents understand what they’re feeling, agents must be careful not to validate feelings of anger or rage.

“When they’re in a situation with negative emotions, agents should try to turn it around,” McGovern says. “Active listening and crafting sentiment statements that acknowledge the lower end of anger emotions, like frustration, makes customers feel heard and can calm them down.”

3. Take ownership of the problem

Regardless of how frustrated a customer may be, agents should always convey that they’re committed to solving the issue at hand. “The first step is always to own the problem,” says Asher. “Once the customer knows you’ve taken ownership of their issue, they feel a lot better.”

A big part of showing empathy is treating the customer how you’d like to be treated, so shifting a caller to voicemail or handing them off to another person who may not be equipped to help isn’t going to boost your customer satisfaction score. Asher encourages all agents to either personally solve the problem on the spot or shift the call to a colleague in real-time to make sure the customer gets the help they need.

4. Use technology, but be flexible with metrics

Beyond using training and daily best practices to build compassion in agents, many companies are now employing artificial intelligence (AI) to measure a caller’s sentiment even before agents are connected with them. AI technology can gauge a customer’s mood based on the tone of their voice. In cases like this, Asher says, “The agent knows that the caller needs empathy upfront,” and is therefore better prepared to address the customer’s frustration quickly and efficiently.

Despite advancements in technology, a true empathetic response takes time. Kendall’s team did some experimenting by removing Average Handle Time as a metric and instructing agents to solve emotional problems no matter how long it took. “As a result, customers weren’t calling back with unresolved issues, and survey results were much better because there was time to make an emotional connection,” he says.

Demonstrating empathy with customers is not only critical for successful customer complaint resolution but also helps create a greater affinity between brand and consumer. After all, solving a problem may not always be possible, but making the customer feel important, heard and understood is one hundred percent achievable.

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