Why empathy statements fail: The truth about customer service

Steve Trier

February 13, 2023

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A 3 step framework for how your agents should act when apologies seem necessary

When companies want to improve customer service, the default strategy for decades has emphasized empathy in customer service. The problem: You can’t script sincerity. Even if you could force human empathy, it doesn’t help solve the customer's problem.

Sure, if an agent delivers the right measure of empathy at the right time, it may diffuse some angry customers. But too often, it comes off as disingenuous and actually harms your customer satisfaction.

Apologies and empathy statements don’t help address a negative experience. Think of a problem from your customer’s perspective: They might be getting in touch for a second or third time. The problem might be complex.

Even if a compassionate agent gives them an apology or empathy statement hits the right note, it elongates the time to resolution. Above all, customers want their problem solved.

What should contact center agents do instead of using empathy statements?

Never forget the reason your customers contact you. The purpose of a complaint or question is to elicit a resolution. Every customer who complains wants their issue solved.

Instead of using standard empathy statements, focus on a different type of contact center language: advocacy statements. Advocacy statements are action-focused and shift the narrative to steps you’re taking to resolve the issue.

The difference between empathy in customer service and advocacy in customer service 

Empathy statement: I know this is frustrating.
Advocacy statement: I'm going to check into this right now. 
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What you say- and what you do - matters more than your tone of voice and the positive language you use trying to convey a relationship with the customer. Use active verbs and tell them how you're working to solve the problem.

Advocacy outweighs empathy for satisfying customers. In our recent study, we confirmed that advocacy statements have the power to reduce effort, improve customer satisfaction, and impact the ability to close sales and save unhappy customers.

Your conversations with customers shouldn't focus on relational work. Instead, the bulk of your support center agent conversations should focus on solving

Customers would rather have competent service than emotionally connected empathic agents. 

3 guiding principles for agents to use when dealing with upset customers

Sensing: Gain perspective at the beginning of  interactions 

In any customer interaction, start by getting a comprehensive understanding of the situation. This sets the foundation for a timely and correct resolution. Ask probing questions and accumulate knowledge of the problem. This signals to the customer we are going to attempt to attack the right thing.

Information gathering is also the key to improved business results. When the agent is armed with all they need to know, they are now ready to take the correct actions. The result: accelerated resolutions, decreasing callbacks, and improved loyalty.

When should you use empathy in a customer conversation? 

Once you understand the problem, this might be the time to do just that to offer an empathy statement to diffuse friction or reinforce appreciation. If so, don't labor the point, apologize sincerely and move on to the solution as quickly as possible.

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Seeking: Generate solutions with action-focused responses 

Sensing sets the foundation for solving a problem, but from the customer’s perspective ,it may do little to signal how the problem will be solved. That's why you need to quickly turn to action. 

  • Advocates who focus on demonstrating how creatively and energetically they are trying to solve the customer’s problem improve the customer experience.
  • This is also the part of the interaction where you must look out for behaviors that can signal to the customer that you are not on the right path.
  • If agents face a problem they are unable to resolve, they need to focus their language on what action they are able to take. Otherwise, they communicate to the customer that they are powerless to help. Our studies show this will increase the perceived effort while negatively impacting business metrics like AHT.

Solving: Resolve issues and set expectations

Do you need to confirm with the customer that you solved their problem? Some customer experience experts debate over whether it helps.

Our experience shows in most cases this does help ensure the customer needs are met and that any other questions or problems are aired out. It is also part of the agent information gathering journey on the interaction, again, ensuring we get to the best possible outcome.

While reaching and/or implementing a solution is the customer's goals, we should ensure where applicable we go that extra step to set good expectations. A simple example is providing the customer a credit on their account, yet failing to set expectations about when that might show up in the account. You can avoid an unnecessary callback the next day if you tell the customer that the discount takes 7 days to show up.

7 key reminders for agent interactions

  • Recognize that apologies and empathy can harm customer satisfaction.
  • Hire team members who are advocates, authentically listen, and thrive on resolution.
  • Customers prefer competence over relational skills. Focus training on solving skills like advocacy.
  • When empathy is authentic and appropriate: First clarify (you’ve been heard), then empathize, and divert quickly to action.
  • Identify when agents are confused or unable to help and use that information to learn where you may need training or improved support articles.
  • Proper expectations setting in the final moments could make all the difference in the customer journey.
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