Encouraging Empathy in Customer Service Teams

Nine times out of ten, if someone contacts customer support, it’s because they have some sort of problem. The issues range in severity, but no matter the case, it’s causing the requester some level of stress.

Customer support professionals have a lot of responsibilities. However, their core responsibility is to serve customers. That can happen in a number of ways, but no matter how the interaction plays out or what the resolution to a request ends up being, there's one thing that’s always helpful in serving a customer: empathy.  

What is empathy in customer service?

Empathy in customer service is essentially what it is in life: the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. As Brené Brown put it so eloquently, “Empathy is feeling with people.” It means actively listening to a request, avoiding judgment, and taking the time to fully understand where someone’s coming from and what they need beyond just the surface. 

Why is empathy important in customer service?

Just as empathy plays a role in our personal lives to help foster connection with others, it does the same in the realm of customer service. A stronger overall connection with customers actually has quite a profound impact on the service you deliver.  

There are three main ways we see that impact could materialize in the real world: 

  • Higher customer satisfaction — When agents have empathy, they’re more likely to take the time to fully understand a customer’s request. They ask more questions and take time to dig into the answers given. Conversely, topping the list of what makes a poor customer experience are things like having to repeat an issue, waiting a long time for a response, or being passed to multiple agents. Empathy can help curb all of those things, which leads to a better overall customer experience.   

  • Faster resolutions — Continuing on that theme, when agents are empathetic, they’re also generally more motivated to work on an issue. That means they’ll be more likely to go the extra mile and do things like check bug logs or reach out to co-workers to find out if anyone has insight into an issue. We’re not suggesting that people don’t regularly do a good job; empathy just makes those things more second nature. When agents lead with empathy, they’re usually able to find answers more efficiently and get customers’ issues resolved faster. 

  • Better brand perception — Did you know that customer service is increasingly a deciding factor of whether or not someone becomes a customer? When agents are empathetic it means they’re more thorough and active with customer requests. That will lead to better overall customer experiences. When people repeatedly have good experiences, your brand perception improves. Think about a popular brand like Apple. Along with having great products, people regularly talk about how great their service is. If you’re in an industry like insurance, you're trading almost solely on brand perception, which is heavily affected by customer service interactions.

Expressing empathy in customer service interactions

Here are a few specific things you can do to show empathy to those you’re interacting with. 

Acknowledge their issue

Showing empathy doesn’t mean offering a grand gesture. Something as simple as just acknowledging the issue a customer is contacting you about is a great first step. Repeating the issue back shows you’re listening and you understand the problem the customer is facing. If you’re not 100% sure, you can always ask for clarity. Both show you’re taking an active role in trying to solve their issue, which in turn shows empathy. 

Be transparent 

If you’re having an issue, the last thing you want is to feel like you’re in the dark about what’s going on. Being transparent with information shows customers that you’re taking their issue seriously and are taking concrete steps to resolve it. This could be something like giving timelines or letting them know when you have to reach out to another team. Keeping customers informed and up to date shows you care and understand that their request is important. 

Set proper expectations

A great way to show empathy is by setting expectations clearly, early, and at multiple points throughout the interaction. It’s an empathic act because it helps put you on equal ground with the customer. By setting expectations, you make yourself responsible to the customer in explicit terms and give them something they can refer back to. 

Follow up early and often

When you have an issue, waiting can be brutal. If the customer is always the person reaching out for a status update, it could start to feel like you’re not taking the issue seriously. Being proactive with communication lets them know you’re invested. Try to follow a regular cadence and be sure to let them know ASAP if anything with their request changes. Both go a long way in showing empathy. 

Take ownership

Even the best companies and customer service professionals drop the ball sometimes. It’s inevitable. If a customer is facing an issue caused by a company, it can be disheartening when the mistake isn’t acknowledged. That’s not to say that customer service folks should apologize for things they aren’t responsible for, but it is important that you own the things that are under your control. You can even take it a step further by outlining how you’ll avoid similar issues in the future.

15 empathy statements to use in customer service 

When showing empathy, the words you use matter a lot. We put together a list of 15 phrases that can help you properly express empathy in your customer service interactions. 

1. Just to make sure I understand

This statement is good for the beginning of a conversation. It shows you’re actively listening, and it gives the customer an opportunity to correct any misunderstandings early. 

2. I would feel the same way

There isn’t one time or place to deploy this statement. It’s primarily about validating a customer and letting them know in no uncertain terms that you’re with them. 

3. Thanks for being patient with us

This is a powerful statement to use if things are taking longer than expected. It’s a way to acknowledge a slower-than-expected pace while also showing gratitude to the customer, both of which show empathy. 

4. I appreciate you sharing 

It’s not always easy to ask for help. Telling someone you appreciate what they shared shows that you understand that vulnerability, and it shows that you’re listening. 

5. I agree 

This is a simple statement and one that may seem obvious, but it’s not something customer service people say as often as you’d think. By agreeing, you instantly let someone know you’re on their side and also offer a level of validation to their request. 

6. I’ve been in your shoes and felt the same

Letting someone know you understand what they’re going through is a big part of showing empathy, and this statement does just that.

7. That’s a great question 

Letting someone know they’ve asked a good question shows you’re engaging with it. A potential side bonus is making someone feel like they’re insightful. 

8. Thanks for letting us know

Similar to others on the list, this is really a way to acknowledge someone. Again, it shows that you’re paying attention and aren’t getting defensive, both of which show empathy. 

9. You’re right

Sadly, some have been trained to think of customer service interactions as a “me vs. them” scenario. Letting someone know you think they’re right changes the dynamic and shows you’re both on the same team. 

10. I will follow up within [time frame] 

Waiting for an answer can be really tough when you’re anxious for an issue to get resolved. Setting a specific time for a response is a powerful empathy statement, because it makes you objectively responsible for something.  

11. If there’s anything else I can help you with, let me know

This statement is generally used at the end of an interaction. It shows openness, which is empathic in nature, and it also gives the customer an opportunity to continue the conversation if they need to.  

12. I apologize for the trouble

Acknowledging someone’s frustration shows you’ve taken the time to understand them. That said, limit yourself to saying sorry only to the times when the issue is squarely on you.  

13. That’s an awesome suggestion 

This is a good statement to use when someone suggests an improvement or has some type of feature request. It shows empathy because you’re actively engaging with their suggestions and even encouraging them. 

14. The next steps are…

Similar to setting a specific time frame, letting someone know what to expect can help reduce some anxiety they may feel when trying to get an issue resolved. The less guesswork they have to do, the more comfortable they’ll feel. 

15. I understand 

This one may seem almost too obvious, but it’s always good to let someone know they’re understood. Understanding is arguably the cornerstone of empathy. Letting someone know directly that you understand what they’re going through can be powerful.

Creating a culture of empathy in your customer service team

Empathy in theory is nice, but it’s really only when it’s put into practice that there’s an impact. The best way to ensure that empathy is part of your interactions is for it to be part of your overall team culture. 

Below are three things you can do to build a culture of empathy in your customer service team. 

Offer training

Generally speaking, naturally empathetic people are often drawn to customer support and other service-related roles. Even though that’s the case, navigating exactly how to show empathy in a professional setting can be difficult as it is different from how you might show empathy in your personal life.  

To help avoid any confusion, it’s important you offer agents training on how to express empathy while still being professional. This could be something you do during onboarding followed by periodic refreshers after a certain amount of time has passed. 

Evaluate for empathy 

One way to strongly signal empathy is important to your team is to measure it. Since there isn’t necessarily a quantitative way to measure empathy, you might have to get a little creative on how you do that. You could have a quality assurance (QA) program that checks conversations for markers of empathy. You could also send out post-interaction surveys that ask questions to see if the customer felt understood. 

Keep the conversation going 

The main way to ensure you have a culture of empathy on your team is by making it a regular topic of conversation. The more it comes up, the more those ideas will be ingrained in your team. Set up regular cadences to either do empathy training or highlight customer interactions you thought were highly empathetic. 

When a value is always present, it’ll be easier for it to sink in. Make sure empathy is a regular part of your team’s life, and you’ll help make it a permanent part of the culture.

Moving forward

Empathy motivates agents to do better and helps create a better overall experience for those they come in contact with. In some ways, infusing empathy into your customer service is easier said than done, but it certainly can be done. Make sure you’re taking concrete action to show that empathy is important, and offer your people the tools they need to respond empathetically. When you do, you’ll create a customer experience you’ll be proud of.

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