The Power of Empathy - Walking In Someone's Shoes

Being really great at Customer Support is more than knowing everything there is to know about your product and bending over backwards to accomplish whatever your customer is asking of you. 

It's about knowing your role as the voice and the ear of the organization your customer is contacting, and developing skills that empower you to meet your company's needs while at the same time meeting the needs of your customers.

One such skill is empathy.  In my experience in call centers, empathy is usually summed up in two quick words that you can throw out anytime a customer expresses dissatisfaction: "I'm sorry" or "I apologize."  

At one company that I worked for, we were required to include such a statement when appropriate on every call.  It quickly became part of the internalized script:

"Thank you for calling, how can I help you?" [Caller says something] "I'm sorry you're [recap what they said], can you give me your account number?"

And sure, yes, definitely - customers, especially by phone, need to know that you're listening not only to the words that they are saying, but that you're able to acknowledge how they may be feeling. 

Of course they expect you to effectively help them solve whatever trouble that drove them to pick up their phone and call you.  Empathy happens when you understand and share the feelings of another person.  The understanding part comes easy.  

The sharing of these feelings is what's difficult, because in your own world, you're not concerned about the extra $1.22 on your bill from six months ago.  You're not nervous about whether your digital interview is going to get you your next job so you can put food on the table for your family because you've just written the check that emptied your savings account. 

You literally cannot feel what the people you're talking to are feeling because you aren't them.  So you muster up enough sympathy based on what they tell you to say, "I'm sorry that happened to you," and try not to sound horribly condescending as you do your best to redirect the call back to the business of the call so you can meet the requirements for your interaction.

Fortunately, we have this thing called imagination.  When I think of imagination, I am immediately drawn back to Kindergarten, the days when the fantasy stories I was told were as real to me as anything I experienced in reality.  Where I wished every night that my toys would come to life and be my real friends with minds of their own. 

        Source: Flickr User:  Caden Crawford

       Source: Flickr User: Caden Crawford

This isn't the kind of imagination I mean to muster up today, but the human brain is an amazing thing, and it allows us access all kinds of things that can help us understand other human beings and where they are coming from.  This kind of exercise takes practice, but it can be a valuable skill for interacting well with all types of customers.

The skill that I'm talking about is the ability to imagine yourself standing in somebody else's shoes.  The fact that the English language has this idiom is a testament to its power. 

We have myths, folktales and movies about making this concept into a tangible reality.  Freaky Friday.  The ability to imagine what one might do in someone else's situation has turned conflict into peace, hate into compassion, and bigotry into acceptance. 

You have the ability to creatively put yourself in someone else's situation and imagine how you would react.  This is in direct contrast to labeling another's circumstances as somehow less important than your own.  It takes effort.  It takes practice to do this with strangers, but we do it instinctively with our friends. 

 Source- Flickr User:  Laura Thorne

Source- Flickr User: Laura Thorne

It's easy to do it when you know a lot about another person, but more imagination, more creative thinking is required when you don't, because your mind has to fill in the blanks.  In a 4-6 minute customer interaction, you need to be able to do this in just a few seconds to react with empathy.

To start, think of someone you know very well.  Remember what you know about their past, their history, their family.  Think about some of the strong opinions they hold about specific things.  How do they react to you and to others?  How is that tied to their history and what you know about them? 

Now that you have that in your mind, extrapolate how they might react if the same thing that's happening to your customers happened to them.  Would they call?  Would they be irate?  What kinds of things could you say to them that might get you where you're going faster or better without ignoring the gravity of the situation?

Actors and actresses do this exercise as part of their occupation, understanding their own characters to such a degree that the audience believes the character could be real no matter how different from the actors' personalities their character might be.

When you talk to a customer, you have to reverse engineer this activity a little bit.  All you get are their reactions.  All you have is what they say and how they say it, and you have to fill in as much of the history as you can to understand them. 

                              Source- Flickr User:  Paddy Patterson

                             Source- Flickr User: Paddy Patterson

When they don't understand something on their bill or on their computer, instead of saying to yourself, "How can they not understand something so simple?" consider possible circumstances that could have led them to this point in their lives. 

This will help you view others with more compassion and understanding and you can have a meaningful interaction rather than beating them over the head with an explanation until they give in and lie that they understand it.

Stand in their shoes for a moment.  Enter each interaction with the intent to understand them as entirely as you can.  

This is a deeper empathy.  This drives compassion.  With this approach, each of your interactions becomes meaningful rather than being monotonous or difficult or burdensome. 

You will find yourself caring about your customers a great deal more, and they will, unsurprisingly, react positively because they will feel like you care about them and the outcome, even when you have to tell them something they'd rather not hear.

- Written by Bradin Wilhelmsen, our Sr. Manager of Customer Support