Our panel of experts investigate how contact centres can improve empathy in customer service.
1. Recognize Emotions
Recognizing the emotions of a customer over the phone can be difficult. During contacts, advisors are immediately placed on the back foot, as they cannot gauge the body language or facial expressions of the customer to interpret how they may be feeling.
Being able to recognize when a customer is frustrated, sad, or happy purely from the tone and pace of their voice is a vital skill that with some practice can be achieved on all calls.
Pay attention to the pitch, volume and pace used by the customer when they are speaking. These are key indications as to their emotional state. When interpreted correctly, they will help advisors adapt their responses, ensuring that the customer feels their concern is being handled confidently and competently.
When an advisor notices a customer becoming frustrated, aggravated or upset, encourage them to adapt the language they’re using and switch to more emotive phrases. Some examples include:
- “That must feel absolutely awful”
- “That sounds very frustrating indeed.”
- “I completely understand, this must have been very difficult for you”
These phrases help to convey an understanding of the customer on an emotional level and reinforce that the advisor is actively listening to their concerns.
2. Nurture Curiosity
At a young age, we are naturally curious. Sadly, as adults, we seem to lose that sense of curiosity that we once had.
When we are curious, we ask questions and search for answers outside the box. This is a skill that, with time and practice, can be improved upon and utilized within call handling.
A good way to put this new skill into practice is when building rapport with the customer. Ask them questions and show an interest in this person. Consider: what are their hobbies? Who do they live with? This will give you an insight into the customer as a person.
Open-ended questions are a fantastic way of doing this. Generally, an open question will quickly provide a better understanding of the situation and will give the customer a better platform to express themselves.
Alternatively, a closed question may force the customer to respond in a way that doesn’t accurately reflect what they are trying to communicate. In an already sensitive situation, this could aggravate the customer further and, as a result, the customer could feel that they are unable to express themselves.
The response to an open question will allow the advisor to better understand the situation from the customer’s perspective, meaning that they can then address the issue appropriately.
3. Respect the Other’s Perspective
Working in a contact centre is fast-paced and intense. It’s easy to get mentally stuck in a negative mindset that can inadvertently become apparent in our communication.
It is important to remember that we can all be emotional and irrational at times; it is part of who we are as humans. The key to successful empathy is for an advisor to put themselves into the shoes of the customer, opening up their minds to understand the customer’s thought process and rationale.
By doing so, the advisor may see the situation in a new light, allowing them to problem-solve in a way that caters to the customer’s needs and ensures their voice is heard.
Also, remember not to make assumptions about a situation. What might seem insignificant to the advisor may mean the world to your customer. It’s important to acknowledge and respect this. After all, we all process emotions differently and that is what makes us unique.
4. Improve Active Listening
Active listening helps to build relationships because it prevents critical information from being missed. It also increases the advisor’s knowledge and understanding, which will enable them to show genuine empathy.
All of these points highlight that the advisor values what the customer has said and will reinforce to them the importance of their communication. This helps to build trust, promote honest and open conversation and prevent any preconceptions or unconscious bias.
With all this in mind, here are three top tips for improving active listening in the contact centre:
- Verbal Nods – Phrases such as: “I see”, “I know”, “Sure” or, “I understand,” are great ways for an advisor to show a customer that they’re following what is being said.
- Paraphrasing to Show Understanding – Coaching advisors to use key words and phrases from the customer’s speech, formulate them into their own words and provide a response is great. It reassures customers of mutual understanding.
- Stay Patient – Don’t formulate a response until the customer has finished speaking. Sometimes advisors can rush into making the wrong assumptions and other times the customer just wants to vent. Give them that chance.
Thanks to Reuben Lax at Comdata
5. Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
It’s an age-old saying for a reason, but one that is forgotten in the heat of the moment on a difficult call or after a long day. But how do you understand your customers more?
At first, practise with colleagues, ask them questions and be curious. Team exercises where advisors take turns sharing life stories can also help.
Such an exercise can be truly eye-opening. It not only helps build bonds between teams but helps advisors think beyond the label of “colleague” or “customer”. It enables advisors to understand that people usually behave in certain ways because of something happening in their lives.
Practise this skill, ask open questions and use it to have better conversations with your customers.
Encourage advisors to ask themselves: what is really causing this customer to be so dissatisfied? It may help the advisor understand customers in a much deeper way – allowing them to improve their customer service.
Thanks to Kayleigh Tait at MaxContact
6. Ask Advisors to Share Their Stories
One of the best ways to help Advisors build empathy is to give them the chance to share personal stories and to actively listen to them. This lets the team directly experience empathy themselves so they know what it feels like.
So, start regular meetings with a request that everyone shares one bad experience from the past week, both professionally and personally. Use these as opportunities to model empathetic language and behaviour.
Talking about bad calls can also help advisors to learn from the experience. This means that they’ll be better prepared to handle such calls in the future.
7. Cut Out the Jargon
Jargon plays a large role in company culture. Yet sometimes contact centres forget customers don’t understand certain terms advisors are highly accustomed to using.
Sticking to simple, understandable terms leads to stronger communication and greater trust between customer and advisor.
One way to combat the unnecessary or unwanted use of jargon is through process documentation, giving advisors prompts for specific or routine requests.
Thanks to Jennifer Waite at Playvox
8. Champion the Most Empathetic Advisors
First, hire recruits with high emotional intelligence. Then, teach empathy through demonstrations of best practice.
This is also a great way to build team relationships, championing the best advisors by bringing them into the session and showcasing how they show empathy.
Active listening is the key technique that is important to highlight in these scenarios, focusing on listening, understanding and reacting with immediate action.
Thanks to Ashley Pieczynski at Cirrus
9. Avoid Fixating on the Solution
For the team to show real empathy, they need to understand that speed of resolution does not necessarily equal good service.
Advisors need to be personable and must show a genuine desire to understand the customer’s situation at their exact moment of need. This can only be achieved by communicating authentically.
Advisors must be patient, talk through the issue with the customer and clarify their understanding, regardless of whether this takes more time.
In doing so, advisors can get to the root of the issue and build rapport in the process.
Thanks to Helen Briggs at Genesys
10. Apologize Sincerely
Acknowledging the issue and saying sorry sincerely are key building blocks that support empathetic customer service. Yet, too often non-apologies rule the roost. These undermine any offer of empathy that follows and can leave a bad taste in the customer’s mouth.
Classic examples include: “I’m sorry for any inconvenience” and “I’m sorry you feel that way.”
It is better to simply listen to the customer’s problem, reflect it back and say: “This doesn’t sound good at all. I’m so sorry it happened.”
Running a simple workshop on offering authentic apologies will save a great deal of negative sentiment.
Backing up coaching with good quality management is also key, with scorecard criteria developed to continuously measure the use of apologies and other common courtesies.
11. Demonstrate What Good Empathy Looks Like
The most important way to demonstrate empathy is to “actively” listen to customers. This will help to guide tone and language selection.
However, coaching advisors to do this can be tricky. Showing them best practice will make the process easier.
So, identify call recordings of contact centre conversations where the customer displays different emotions and ask the team how they think the customer is feeling. This will provide a great indication of each advisor’s listening skills and highlight areas for possible improvement.
Other ideas to improve active listening in the contact centre include:
- Encouraging advisors to make notes of key facts
- Eliminating background noise and distractions
- Playing listening games
12. Combat the Most Common Empathy Blocker…
The most common empathy blocker in contact centres is that many of the processes that customers struggle with are things that advisors find easy. It therefore becomes difficult for advisors to relate to the customer’s situation.
Unfortunately, the ability to relate to a customer sits at the heart of empathy. Coaches often say: “Put yourself in the customer’s shoes.” However, doing this, call after call, can be exhausting and advisors slip into the habit of viewing the interaction from their own perspective.
To combat this issue, consider coaching self-awareness, making advisors aware of their biases.
Set the stall out in quality monitoring sessions. Highlight examples of when advisors are guilty of this and listen back to the call together.
Ask the advisor how they could have approached the call differently. In all likelihood, they will notice the issue themselves. This can lead to a powerful coaching conversation.
Thanks to Niall Gallacher at Calabrio
13. Discuss Good and Bad Experiences
Empathy is about emotion. Reliving positive and negative emotions has a deep psychological impact.
Schedule a training session and ask advisors to share the worst customer experience they’ve ever had. Ask them to describe that experience in detail. Ask them how the experience made them feel, and how it left them feeling about the company in question. Do they still do business with that company?
Contrast that by asking about the BEST experience they have ever had. Ask them again to describe the experience in detail and how it left them feeling about the company.
Ask the team how they want to make the call centre customers feel.
Remember, as Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, they will forget what you did, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
Thanks to Jay Gupta at Talkdesk
14. Don’t Teach Empathy, Teach Listening
Not only does a customer want to be heard, but they want advisors to understand what they’re going through.
Giving callers the knowledge that their issue is being heard and understood creates an air of trust and collaboration.
Advisors that can demonstrate that they have heard the issue will save time and streamline the conversation.
Once the issue is proven to be clearly understood, move forward and present possible options for resolution.
15. Case Study and Role-Play
Part of the reason advisors fail in showing empathy is that, unless they have a long tenure, they’re not sure what to expect.
Case studies and role-play exercises can be a goldmine of information and provide real-world simulations of issues advisors can and will experience on the frontline.
Don’t forget role-play should always involve feedback, corrections and guidance. This will ensure that advisors feel confident in resolving issues.
Thanks to Jamie White at Alvaria
16. Demonstrate You Understand the Issues
Arguing or shouting over the customer is the worst tactic when defusing a situation with an aggravated customer.
Coach advisors to listen to the problem, demonstrate that they understand the issues and let the customer know that they are the support they need. The customer will appreciate that the advisor is listening and using the correct verbal cues.
Another great tip is to give advisors is: “Put yourself in the customer’s shoes.”
Sometimes shoehorns and foot jiggling may be required. But encourage the team to think about times where they have had to speak to someone on a call and how frustrated they might have become. This will make the process much easier.
Thanks to Kevin Buckley at Spearline
17. Coach Ownership Alongside Empathy
Apologies and empathy statements will only go so far. When used incorrectly or too much, they become starved of their authenticity and are perceived by customers as watered-down, empty responses.
The key to building true empathy is by ensuring advisors can go beyond saying “sorry” and take ownership of the issue. Strong ownership builds trust and reduces the need for ’empty’ empathy to be used.
What does ownership look like in an advisor’s response? If they work at a large internet provider, for example, it might sound something like:
“I’m so sorry your internet is not working again. I see it has been weeks. I want you to know we will take care of this while we are on the phone today, so you don’t have to deal with this again.”
Alternatively, if the advisor is unable to solve the customer’s issue, continued ownership involves making sure that the call is passed over to another department that is better suited to offer support.
Thanks to Frank Sherlock at CallMiner
18. Manage Personal Emotions
Respond quickly, not immediately. When the advisor is answering a challenging call, email or message, encourage them to take some time, calm down and filter their words.
Sure, this can be difficult on the phone, so coach advisors to paraphrase the problem back to the customer, checking if they’ve understood correctly while giving the customer a chance to fill the gaps.
Then, offer empathy with lines such as: “I imagine you’re feeling frustrated because this could be an easier process than it has been.”
By following this process, advisors can engage in compassionate communication, which can be an effective customer service strategy.
Thanks to Amanda Henderson RingCentral
19. Offer Positive Reassurance
A great technique for showing empathy, particularly if a customer is explaining a frustrating problem, is to start the beginning of the response with a short, direct statement of intent. This will gain the customer’s confidence and inspire a positive emotion.
For example, an advisor could respond with “Right, let’s get this problem sorted for you…”. Or “Thank you so much for taking the time to explain. Let us get this problem fixed.”
A simple technique like this will go a long way in reassuring the customer that the advisor is taking ownership of the problem. A great weight can then be lifted from their shoulders.
20. Treat Customers as Individuals
Customers want to be treated as individuals. First and foremost, they want to be understood when it comes to solving their issue.
To overcome this hurdle, stop asking a repeat caller to explain their problem repeatedly. A better practice is to employ digital customer service software that will route customers to the right advisors and provide a CRM database that’s filled to the brim with useful customer information.
Advisors can then make personalized connections with repeat callers, through access to their customer history and repeat calls. This will also help to solve customer issues.
With a good connection between the advisor and customer, showing empathy becomes a much more natural, instinctive process.
Thanks to Alex Stenton-Hibbert at Business Systems
21. Employ Empathy Statements
When helping customers to feel heard and understood, advisors can sometimes struggle to find the right words to say. Empathy statements are an ideal fall-back option.
The trick, of course, is making sure advisors don’t sound robotic or come across as expressing pity.
These three empathy statements help advisors convey to customers that they understand their concerns and demonstrate they’re invested in solving a problem.
- “I would feel that too in this situation.”
- “You’re right.”
- “I apologize that you’ve had to deal with this.”
Each of these statements sounds authentic and sincere, helping advisors establish a connection with the person they’re talking to while validating the customer’s feelings as respected and valued.
Thanks to Sagi Eliyahu at KMS Lighthouse
22. Appreciate Individuality
Many companies are still not treating their customers as individuals. Appreciating everyone’s individuality and doubling down on the value of listening will help advisors to understand their customers’ queries.
In doing so, advisors can treat everyone, irrespective of their age, as an individual. This is a key part of empathetic customer service.
Brands that rethink and redesign their communications strategy with this in mind will find the greatest opportunity for success.
Thanks to Mirza Hadzic at Infobip
23. Dig Into Call Recordings
Businesses can use a combination of call recordings and analytics to work out what high-performing advisors are doing well and how are they showing empathy to build customer engagement.
Then, highlight these approaches in training and try to replicate them across the whole team.
Advisors often like this because the insight comes from one of their peers rather than from management, while contact centres benefit from enhanced advisors and customer engagement.
Thanks to Jeremy Payne at Enghouse Interactive
24. Be Empathetic Towards the Team
To increase empathy within the workforce, show empathy towards advisors, especially if they’re still working from home.
Contact centre managers need to accept the realities of some of their employees working remotely, including that many will be working from unpredictable environments.
Whatever the scenario, accept that advisors have lives outside of their work and offer solutions that help manage that work/life balance. This will, typically, increase empathy levels within the contact centre.
Thanks to David Noone at Odigo
25. Monitor the Use of Empathy
At the heart of empathy is active listening, whereby advisors pay full attention to callers while they’re speaking. Soft skills like this are difficult to train but can be monitored.
Real-time monitoring technologies give leaders a complete view of digital and voice channels for every team member, as if they were standing right behind them.
This allows better coaching and feedback opportunities for both remote and in-office advisors.
Thanks to Chris Bauserman at NICE CXOne
26. Remove Customer Repeats
When a customer contacts a brand, many will expect that call centre to know them and their history with the company. They do not expect to repeat themselves.
Voice remains the most popular channel of choice in the contact centre. On this channel, advisors should spend more time listening and being empathetic with customers instead of asking customers to repeat themselves or putting them on hold while they hunt down the information.
By integrating the CRM with other systems, you give advisors instant access to all the customer data they need to improve customer interactions.
Thanks to Sabine Winterkamp at Five9
Discover lots more advice for showing customer empathy in the following articles: