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Deepen the Connection
with Empathy

No one likes complaints. But it’s important to understand that for each complaint you receive, twenty-six complaints have gone unexpressed. Sadly, the majority of consumers don’t feel they’ll be heard or don’t have the time, so they don’t bother expressing their dissatisfaction. There’s a reason for that.

Deepen the Connection with Empathy

Your customer doesn’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

Damon Richards

Customer support hasn’t always focused on treating people right, and its poor reputation continues, no matter how many improvements are made. Don’t believe us? The Aspect Consumer Experience Index asked consumers whether they’d rather clean a toilet than contact customer service. One-fourth admitted that, yes, they preferred cleaning a toilet to dealing with customer service in any channel.

Our job — whether we choose to accept it or not — is to reverse those sentiments, turning negativity into warm, positive feelings about our brands. As we’ve already discussed, we do that by making people feel important and relating to them as one human to another. But we can achieve even more good will if we employ empathy when engaging with customers.

In this chapter, we’ll explore what empathy is, how to develop or enhance it (even if you’re not a naturally empathetic person), and how to express it so your customers feel they’re being heard and understood.

Understanding Empathy

Use the word empathy in any business, and this is what springs to mind: putting customers first… writing copy that focuses on the consumer rather than the brand or its products… being “you” oriented rather than “us” oriented in marketing and sales.

This interpretation, while helpful, falls short of its true meaning.

According to Merriam-Webster, empathy is:

The act of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to…

So far, it’s similar to our initial understanding of the word…

Merriam-Webster: Empathy

But now it shifts into high gear:

…and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another…without having the feelings, thoughts, or experiences fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

According to emotional intelligence author Daniel Goleman, empathy is a core component of emotional intelligence and is key to developing deep levels of rapport and trust.

Daniel Goleman, Greater Good Magazine: Hot to Help: When can empathy move us to action?

Rapport and trust. Aren’t these the goal in our interactions with customers? Only when you feel the pain and frustration your customers are experiencing can you fully communicate that you care — or feel motivated to find quicker, more thorough solutions.

Already, we can see the value of empathy when engaging with customers, but new research is giving us even more information about how it can be expressed. Experts have discovered three distinct types of empathy, and understanding them may make it easier to nail this essential component of unforgettable support. Let’s take a look.

Cognitive Empathy

Cognitive empathy is first. Sometimes called perspective-taking, it refers to our ability to identify and understand the emotions being expressed by the person we’re talking to.

When we experience cognitive empathy, we’re inclined to say things like:

“I get where you’re coming from,”


“I hear a lot of anger in what you’re saying.”

Notice the ability to identify feelings without actually feeling them ourselves. This can be helpful when interacting with a customer, but only to a point. Because there’s no emotional connection — it’s purely an intellectual exercise — there’s no motivation to help. Quite the opposite. Cognitive empathy is often used by politicians to read people’s emotions and use them for their own advantage.

This is probably what’s going on when support agents are accused of not caring. Even when they go through the motions of empathy, saying and doing all the right things, they aren’t motivated to help. For that to happen, they need the second type of empathy.

Affective Empathy

Affective empathy, or emotional empathy, has to do with the sensations and feelings that arise in response to other people’s emotions. This occurs somewhat naturally when we reflect the emotions of someone we’re talking to. They express fear, so we mirror (and feel) fear in response. They express anger, and we get angry with them.

Greater Good Magazine: Empathy Defined: What Is Empathy?

When you physically feel what others are feeling, as if their emotions were contagious, you’re experiencing affective empathy. This gets closer to Merriam-Webster’s second definition of empathy, but it’s still not a perfect solution to the problems associated with cognitive empathy.

Here’s what we mean by that: affective empathy can make you a strong advocate for your customers. You’ll care about their problems and feel motivated to help. But after spending forty hours a week absorbing the emotions of your customers, you can easily become overwhelmed. You may have a hard time managing your own emotions, and you may experience emotional and psychological burnout.

Clearly, there needs to be a balance, and according to psychologist Paul Ekman, there is.

Compassionate Empathy

Ekman has defined a third type of empathy, compassionate empathy, that involves a cultivated detachment. With this type of empathy, not only can you cognitively understand a customer’s feelings and feel with them, but you’re also motivated to help.

This type of empathy depends on the awareness that we’re all connected. It begins with the ability to identify the emotions a customer brings to the conversation, feeling enough of their pain to grasp its importance — but not so much that you’re drawn into the full experience of it — and then compassionately find the best solution.

This strikes the right balance between seeing and identifying emotions and becoming overwhelmed by them. It creates a bit of space between your customers and you but still lets you feel with them.

The biggest challenge here is being able to maintain it. After all, you’re only human yourself. Responding to every customer with one hundred percent empathy and attention, one hundred percent of the time, will be exhausting. You’ll have bad days. Your mind will wander. You may be faced with emotions or problems you have no previous experience with — which means you’ll fall back into cognitive empathy.

Additionally, every customer is different. They all come with different motivations, having different needs and expressing different emotions. One person may need a quick answer rather than an intricate solution. Another may want you to take your time, walking them through the solution and explaining what’s happening at every stage of the process. Even expressing compassionate empathy, you need to be able to quickly assess people’s needs and provide the right level of support.

The Right Approach for Customer Support

Neither cognitive or affective empathy provides the right approach to customer support. They’re two extremes on the scale, one being purely intellectual, the other being almost purely emotional.

The right approach lies somewhere in the middle, and compassionate empathy seems to nail it. It gives you enough emotional connection to feel motivated to help, but not so much as to be overwhelming. It provides enough cognitive detachment to understand the emotions and issues at play but not so much as to make you seem cold and uncaring.

True human-to-human support strikes this balance. It’s able to assess the situation calmly, feel the urgency of the customer’s needs, and express compassion while offering the best solution available.

If that sounds a bit woo-woo, you’re right. Compassionate empathy describes the ideal customer support interaction. But it’s a lofty ideal. And it may be too idealistic to assume every customer support agent can master it — especially people who aren’t naturally empathetic or are having a bad day. That said, empathy can be learned. It can also be refined to the point that it’s almost automatic, so it won’t be overwhelming or exhausting. Let’s look at a few techniques for developing or enhancing compassionate empathy.

Developing Empathy

Believe it or not, empathy isn’t something we’re born with. Any of us. We all fall short of the ideal. Fortunately, though, empathy can be developed and improved with simple exercises and the intention to improve.

Here are five simple exercises recommended to develop and strengthen this essential skill.

Pay Attention

To create the empathetic connection, you must be able to identify and feel the emotions your customer is feeling. Empathy depends on mirror neurons helping us observe a customer’s emotions, interpret the tone of their voice, and read the subtle clues that express their deepest feelings.

When engaging with a customer, always be alert for micro-messages that could help you understand the other person’s inner state.

Granted, this is easiest when you’re talking with someone face to face because you can see the slight movements of their face and eyes. On the phone, you may not be able to see the customer’s facial expressions, but you will be able to hear the tone of voice. In email, live chat, and social media, you’ll have neither, which means you’ve got to pay attention to their word choices, the emotions behind their words, and how long it takes for them to respond.

If you’re the least bit distracted, you won’t notice these indicators, so it’s important to minimize distractions. Close any apps or browser windows that might send you alerts or messages. Put away your phone.

Get Out of Your Own Head

Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman, authors of “Words Can Change Your Brain”, have found that excessive self-talk — the chatter that goes on non-stop in our heads — can be as distracting as messages on your phone, making it hard to be fully present with customers. After all, how can you listen to your customers' problems when your own internal voice is focused on other issues?

The unexpected solution is simply to relax.

Take a minute to stretch and yawn. Try to loosen your facial muscles and breathe slowly in and out for a moment. Then focus on a positive thought or memory.

That’s it. Believe it or not, that can be all it takes to clear the mind of distracting thoughts and petty irritations, putting you in a more positive, empathetic mindset.

Fake It Till You Make It

Other times, you’re working with a customer who rubs you the wrong way. You know you need to be empathetic, but you struggle simply to be professional.

Sadly, empathy isn’t something you can fake. It is, though, something you can work up to. David Swink, Chief Creative Officer of Strategic Interactions, believes you can act empathetically even when you feel antagonistic to a person — and has trained hostage negotiators to do just that.

Hostage negotiators must establish rapport with hostage takers in order to influence them. To do that, they must act empathetically, even if they despise the person. Swink reports that, after going through the motions of empathy to build a relationship with hostage takers, negotiators begin to feel real empathy. Simply acting empathetically generates true empathy.

In customer support, even when a customer is irritating or difficult to work with, they’ll likely never reach the extreme of a hostage taker. And even if all you can muster is cognitive empathy, that’s enough to begin generating compassionate empathy, which will improve your ability to make your customers happy.

Embrace Differences

You need to be able to empathize with every customer, no matter who they are, how they talk, or what their style of communication is. Even when a customer isn’t being hostile, you may find it difficult to express empathy for them.

You can, as we just mentioned, go through the motions of empathy until you begin to feel it. But you may also need to identify areas where you have hidden biases.

You see, it’s possible to hear an accent and automatically think the person you’re talking to is less educated, less intelligent, or less capable. A customer may not know the answer to one question you ask, and you may jump to the conclusion that they’re inexperienced or slow.

Prejudices — even subtle ones — show up when you least expect them. And they can dramatically impact your ability to help people who reach out for customer support. So it’s important to proactively explore your biases and learn more about people who are different from you. These exercises should help:

  • The Coffee Shop Challenge. The next time you go to a coffee shop, strike up a conversation with a stranger. Make it your goal (without being creepy) to learn something interesting about them. Listen for the way different people think and rationalize their decisions.
  • The Help-Me Challenge. The next time you’re at a store and can’t make up your mind between two brands, ask a random stranger for advice. Encourage them to explain why they’d make their choice. Again, your goal is to talk to people unlike yourself and appreciate the different perspectives they offer.
  • The Diversity Challenge. Read fiction or watch shows that revolve around people who are different than you. When you see the characters struggling, root for their success.

All of these exercises will help you get to know people who are different from you — including the unique ways they perceive and respond to the world around them. This gives you insight into how your customers are thinking and feeling when you’re answering questions or helping them solve problems. In short, you’ll find it easier to empathize even with people who are radically different from you.

Take Up Acting

When acting, you have to “become” the character you’re playing. That takes more than an intellectual understanding of the character. It takes affective empathy. To succeed, you’ve got to express emotions you may not be feeling. You’ve got to show the inner workings of your character through small mannerisms and facial expressions.

There’s no better way to practice empathy for your customers — and learn how to be empathetic even when you don’t feel like it — than “becoming” a different person. So sign up now for an acting class. Join a community theater. Or join an improv group. And have some fun while you’re at it.

Expressing Empathy in Customer Support

Once you’ve refined your empathy skills, it’s time to focus on expressing empathy in a way that your customers can understand.

It starts with distinguishing between what the customer says and what they mean. To do this, you’ll need to pay attention to your customer’s micro-messaging, small clues to their deeper feelings, which are sometimes in conflict with what they say they feel. In many cases, the customer can’t (or won’t) be able to express their thoughts or feelings clearly, so you need to be able to read between the lines.

For example, if they express impatience because your blog’s social sharing buttons don’t include a print option, you’ll need to look past the petty complaint and realize what they really want is to have a downloadable PDF of your blog content. What first came off as a complaint is now a sideways compliment. Not only is it easier on your ego, but this knowledge also helps you refine your business to deliver happiness.

We’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Your customers have different needs and different expectations. One person may want to download PDFs of your blog, while another may be irritated that you offer them. Don’t worry about making everyone perfectly happy. Focus instead on serving the majority — especially those who are your target audience and best customers.

That said, let’s review some micro-messages you may need to interpret for the vastly different customers you’ll be dealing with.

Need to be Understood

Many times, when a customer complains, what they’re really communicating is that they want you to understand them better.

You can listen to their complaint, empathize with their situation or need, and still disagree with them. You see, empathy doesn’t require agreement. It just requires understanding. In fact, you may completely disagree with a customer and give them the support they need without ever letting them know you disagree.

Of course, there may be occasions when you need to let customers know they’re wrong. When that happens, start by expressing compassion. Let them know you hear and understand them. Then, make whatever correction needs to be made, being careful to be very professional in your tone.

Your goal here is to solve the problem without demeaning your customer’s feelings and without misrepresenting your company.

Need to be Taken Seriously

Your customers want to be taken seriously. Never demeaned. Never made to feel stupid. This is similar to their need to be understood, but it goes much deeper — especially if they’ve been trying to communicate a problem and have felt as if their concerns are consistently ignored or dismissed.

When you sense a customer needs to be taken seriously, begin by letting them know you hear and understand. Use reflective listening to make it clear that you’ve heard what they’ve said and that you do take them seriously. You can do this by saying something like:

“I’m sorry to hear [summary of their complaint].”

“You’re right, it’s not easy to [summary of what they’ve been trying to do].”

“I can understand how frustrating it is to [summary of their complaint].”

“I can understand how upsetting it is when [summary of the situation].”

Simply by repeating your customer’s own words in a sympathetic way can fill their need to be taken seriously. Be careful in doing this, though. You must maintain a professional, compassionate tone, or your customer might feel that you’re mimicking or making fun of them.

Need for Apologies

Sometimes, the customer feels wronged. Your company has failed them, a mistake was made (even if it wasn’t intentional), harm was done on some level. And their deepest need at that moment is a sincere apology.

Fortunately, the word sorry is powerful when used sincerely. It can right a multitude of wrongs, expressing empathy for the customer’s situation and sorrow that they aren’t satisfied.

That’s why you should never hesitate to give an apology when needed. It isn’t about placing blame, so it should never be withheld out of pride or dislike for the person on the other side of the conversation.

Be aware, though, there are different types of apologies. Fake apologies go something like:

“I’m sorry you’re upset.”

That feels suspiciously like a brush-off. A sincere apology sounds more like:

“I’m so sorry you’ve had such a bad experience. How can I help?”

Don’t let it sound like part of your script. It needs to sound like you’re genuinely concerned, like you empathize with the customer and are invested enough to try to help.

Psychological scientists Roy Lewiski, Beth Polin, and Robert Lount Jr., have found that apologies can include up to six distinct elements:

  1. Expression of regret
  2. Explanation of what went wrong
  3. Acknowledgement of responsibility
  4. Declaration of repentance
  5. Offer of repair
  6. Request for forgiveness

Association for Psychological Science: Effective Apologies Include Six Elements

Of course, not all elements need to be present in every apology. The most powerful element, and the one that best communicates sincerity is an acknowledgement of responsibility. That said, the bigger the mistake, the more of these elements should be included in the apology.

When making an apology, be aware of your tone of voice. We’ll talk more about the nuances of tone in another chapter, but this is such an important topic, it’s worth mentioning here. When apologizing, to be perceived as sincere, you must get the words and the tone right. If either is off, your apology will be less effective.

Then once you’ve made the apology, you can offer to make reparations or fix the issue. This has the potential to create satisfaction despite the problems that have occurred. You may offer to fix things for them, offer a new solution, or give some sort of compensation, such as a discount or small gift.

Is this necessary? Yes, if you want to reduce anger and the negative word-of-mouth that often follows. The 2017 Customer Rage Survey conducted by the Carey School of Business at Arizona State University found that only twenty-three percent of customers were happy when offered an apology alone, but when customers were offered relief that has a measurable cost with the apology, satisfaction jumped to seventy-three percent.

Arizona State University W.P. Carey School of Business, Center for Services Leadership: Customer Rage

Memorable customer support begins and ends with compassionate empathy. To achieve it, you must develop the ability to hear what’s going on, understand the depth of the pain it’s causing, and proactively support your customers. When you’ve found this frame of mind, it’s easier to treat each customer as a human.

The goal is, first, being human, and second, being empathetic. It’s all about respecting the people we engage with. When you begin to develop empathy, you’re able to tap into the deeper needs your customers bring to the conversation. You can hear their unspoken desires. You can understand their real needs. And you can deliver the solutions that will make your customers happy.

Of course, to complete this process, you need to master the third core element of unforgettable customer support: clear, compassionate communication. In the next chapter, we’ll talk in-depth about how to do that.