How Empathy Influences Customer Service and Why is it Important?

Last Updated: April 20, 2023

Customers don’t just want to be heard these days, they want to be listened to. Most often the difference is in how empathetic you are towards your customer. Customers can tell if you lack empathy, and it may be the deciding factor in doing business with you.

A Zappos customer rep once made headlines for a record-breaking 10:43 hours support call. How could it even happen? It’s difficult to spend so long on a phone call with anyone. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh says, “At Zappos, we encourage employees to continue the call for as long as the customer wants. We know it sounds crazy, but as long as the customer is happy, then we are happy, too.” Customers famously call this online retailer company “happiness in a box”. 

A Starbucks patron says she’s not and will never be on board with the high prices. Why does she continues to visit Starbucks anyway? She says, “Although I don’t like the Starbucks prices, I will keep paying those prices as long as they continue their exceptional customer service. Recently, my daughter spilled her vanilla bean frappuccino shortly after ordering it and they were quick to get her a new one. That goes a long way in my book.”

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Customer Service is Changing

Every business understands the value of good customer service. They go the extra mile to help customers gain maximum value out of their purchases. But what makes the above companies different? How do they make exceptional (sometimes unrealistic) customer service possible?

Through the secret ingredient of “empathy”.

Companies don’t differ “objectively” anymore, only “subjectively”. Even if you offer a product of great value, your customers can find ten other brands like you. They are exposed to thousands of brands each day on social media. What makes them choose you instead is sometimes value for money, sometimes product strength, but most often than not, it’s your ability to make lasting empathetic connections with customers. But what does empathy mean in customer service? Is it the ability to meet customer expectations no matter how? Is it saying yes to customers no matter what?

Understanding Empathy in Customer Service

Let’s be realistic, you can’t always say yes to customers. There are going to be expectations you can never meet and problems you can never solve. It is even possible that businesses could meet the practical needs of a customer and still fail to deliver a “satisfying” customer experience. Similarly, you could say no and still continue to interact on a positive note, leaving the customer satisfied. This is where empathy gets interesting. 

Being empathetic towards customers doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with them. It means you understand where they are coming from. You understand their emotions, feelings, intentions and not just their words. You understand how important solving the issue is to them. Because customers would choose meaningful and compassionate involvement over-committed but robotic engagement any day. Moreover, customer experiences are increasingly delivered online these days. You can’t observe the customer’s feelings and body language and mirror them. Observation is a key customer service skill an agent should possess. 

If there is a service outage issue, customers don’t expect you to just fix it. They would want you to explain why it happened, listen to how they felt during the issue, and reassure them that it won’t happen again. Customers reach out to the support team for more reasons than issue resolution. If it’s just solutions that they want, they could get it anywhere, even from the internet. 

In essence, to be empathetic is to respect the value placed upon the interaction and not just the functional aspects of it.

From Responses to Meaningful Interactions

The million-dollar question is, how to practice empathy? How to let customers know you value their interactions? 

An organization doesn’t achieve empathy by hiring a few support reps with good communication skills or by simply spending more time in each customer service interaction. Empathy at scale requires strategic measures and a lot of commitment to honing your empathy skills. Some key measures include:

#1 Personalize your interactions: Personalization is a key character trait of customer service empathy. You need to treat each customer as their own person in order to feel them heard in the first place.

#2 Stay on the same page with your customers: If a customer insists on using their current feature better and not buying a new feature, stick to it. Give your best solutions but allow them to make their decision. You would otherwise seem tone-deaf and self-serving. This also includes matching their tone of voice. One can’t be informal when the other is formal. 

#3 Don’t try to win arguments: Trying to win arguments is the top way to lose customers. As a customer service representative, you are bound to face difficult customers and angry customers time and again. You should stand your ground, but be courteous while doing so. Walk a mile in the customer’s shoes. You can understand their point of view better. 

#4 Reach them before they reach you: Preemptly delivering information or proactive service is the next big thing in customer engagement. You are displaying empathy by looking out for customers’ problems before they occur. 

#5 Don’t rush closure: By rushing customers towards closure, you are indirectly discouraging them from contacting you. You may think that’s what customers would want too, reaching a quick solution, don’t they? It’s different. Understand the customer’s pain points, provide your solutions, and wait for an acknowledgment so that the customer feels cared for. 

#6 Create an ongoing feedback loop: There is no better way to express empathy than by active listening. Surveys encourage customers to voice their opinions and help businesses center the user experience around them. 

There are two types of empathy – cognitive empathy, the ability to understand other’s emotions, and affective empathy, the ability to share other’s emotions. Excellent customer service is the result of both. 

Empathy is a Competitive Necessity

Showing empathy helps you forge lasting customer relationships and deliver customer satisfaction at all times. But that’s not all. Empathy also makes good revenue sense for your business — you are preventing churn, scoring repeat revenue, improving your bottom line, building reputation, and enhancing the heart share of your business in the marketplace. 

You can’t always deliver the expected solution but you can deliver a satisfactory human interaction. Read more to find how different companies go the extra mile to achieve great customer service.