empathetic support

How to Make Empathy Your Support Team’s Secret Weapon

There are a lot of “keys to success” thrown around in the support world. But there’s only one that works every time.

There are a lot of “keys to success” thrown around in the support world. But there’s only one that works every time.



“First contact resolution!”

If you ask a group of ten customer service professionals to share the single most important thing in any customer service interaction, you’re likely to get a variety of different responses.

They can’t all be right. Or can they?

It’s a debate that comes up a lot. And the spirit of the debate is in the right place: we all want to get at what we should be focusing on most in order to maximize customer satisfaction, and ultimately, customer loyalty.

But the fact is, the real secret doesn’t lie in one of the three traits above.

It’s a bit more nuanced than that, but don’t let that scare you: once you understand the secret to building customer loyalty with every support email, putting it into practice is the easy part.

The Best Support Is Empathetic to the Needs of Each Individual Customer

It’s a simple fact that disappoints anyone looking for a general “silver bullet” that will work on every customer: every customer is different.

Where one customer values speed most, another will value warmth more. Where one wants to have their hand held and to be walked through a solution step by step, another would prefer a link to a knowledge base articles that will help them figure things out themselves.

A few years ago, a survey by Genesys asked more than 9,000 consumers about what mattered to them most when it came to interacting with companies.

What did the respondents mark as the improvement they’d like to see most among the companies they do business with?

40% of them—more than double the responses that the second place answer received—said “better human service”.

Have you ever found yourself thinking that the support you just got was excellent because it felt “human”? Like you were doing business with a person, and not just a company?

That “fluffy” attribute—humanness—is actually tied to something very real: empathy. Great support feels human because it feels like the support agent understands you and what you want, rather than giving you robotic, generic service.

And that, in a nutshell, is what the best support is.

It’s about being human. It’s about having empathy in customer service. It’s about understanding what each customer wants, and how to give that to them.

That’s why empathy is so important in customer service.

And while that might sound like a bad thing (“how can I ever win at this if there’s no right answer for everyone?!”), don’t throw up your hands in defeat just yet.

You CAN win, because being able to define empathy in relation to customer service will help you focus on building the most important skill of all: being able to read between the lines, understanding what the customer really wants and needs out of any particular interaction, and delivering it.

We’ll call this trait support empathy. And the importance of empathy in support can’t be overstated.

Master support empathy, and the world of satisfied, valuable, loyal customers is yours.

How to Master Support Empathy

One of my favorite empathy quotes that all customer service pros should internalize comes from Daniel Pink, author of A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule The Future.

Empathy is about standing in someone else’s shoes, feeling with his or her heart, seeing with his or her eyes. Not only is empathy hard to outsource and automate, but it makes the world a better place.

Daniel Pink

Empathy is one of the key customer service skills. “Skill” is the key word here; empathy isn’t just something you’re either born with or without. It can be learned and improved, just like any other skill.

Pink offers three empathy exercises to develop empathy in adults (including, you guessed it, customer service pros).

  1. Spend time with people who are different than you. Your team has many opportunities to do this each day. Encourage them to strike up a conversation with the barista at their coffee shop, or simply engage with colleagues in other departments on a regular basis.
  2. Get a set of IDEO Method Cards. These cards are designed to help your team better understand the way your customers think and feel. While originally built for designers, they’re a fantastic tool for anyone looking to work on their empathy.
  3. Take an acting class. There’s literally no job in the world that calls on you to step into someone else’s shoes more than acting, and having new team members take a class is a great way to learn how to do that.

Training empathy on a regular basis will help you get much better at reading between the lines of every customer service email and figuring out the best way to respond to each customer.

But beyond just working on the skill, there are some tactical things to understand that can make this process much easier and faster. Let’s look at some examples of cues, and some training exercises that can help you master support empathy.

How to Understand Message Cues and Show Empathy in Customer Service

In any message from a customer, there are two elements: what the customer says, and what the customer means.

Often, the two aren’t 100% aligned.

For example, if a customer emails you demanding that they “need [insert feature here] built ASAP,” what they really need is a way to do something that they may not have quite figured out how to do with your existing features. If you can show them how to do accomplish that, then you can show them that they may actually not need that feature at all.

In just about every email, your customer gives you cues—non-obvious to some, but quickly and easily decodable by support empathy jedi’s—that tell you what they really want.

Here are just a few examples of empathy cues in customer service:

1) What tone should you use?

While there’s some research to suggest that more than half of customers prefer a casual tone in customer service, the true answer depends on the context of the interaction.

To determine the best tone for each interaction, look for cues like:

  • Does the customer use emoticons, exclamation points and slang? (This is a green light for you to reciprocate.)
  • Does the customer sound like they might not be totally fluent in your language? (In this case, you need to be much more careful with nuances like slang.)
  • Does the customer sound frustrated? (Turn up the empathy and use tone that’s understanding, apologetic and reassuring.)

Practice looking for these cues, and adjusting your tone to match the customer will become second nature.

2) Should you apologize?

Just because a customer’s email is positive in tone, doesn’t mean that they may not deserve an apology for having to email you for help.

Many people are simply too polite to send a negative email.

And in fact, most of these people won’t email you at all; they’ll simply leave. In fact, a survey by Lee Resource International found that for every customer who complains, 26 others remain silent.

That means two things: first, that those customers who do email you are giving you a tremendous gift (and possibly saving you another 26 customers), and second, that by the time things got bad enough that the customer felt the need to email you, it’s probably hurting them.

Even in positive emails, exercise empathy to look for phrases and cues that signal that a customer’s experience might be less-than-perfect. For example, phrases like:

  • “I tried to [do X].” This means that they probably failed at it, which means that they’re struggling with your product.
  • “Can’t seem to,” “frustrating,” “confusing,” “can’t figure out,” or any variation of these “user experience failure” terms.
  • “How do I [perform a core function of your product]?” For edge case scenarios, an apology might not be warranted, but if a customer is asking you how to perform a basic function in your product, this could signal an onboarding fail.

Apologies aren’t about taking blame for anything. Apologies are about empathy, about showing that you understand how the customer feels, and about feeling genuinely sorry that they feel that way or are having trouble, regardless of who caused it.

3) Speed versus first contact resolution

There are obvious cues that tell you when an issue is urgent (“please help asap!”), but there are less obvious ones, too.

One example is the channel in which your customers reach out to you through.

In general, customers who email you are less interested in speedy responses than customers who reach out via social media.

One survey by Forrester found that 41% of customers expect a response to a customer support email within six hours.

But in social media, speed becomes even more important, where 32% of users who contact a brand expect a response within 30 minutes, and 42% expect a response within 60 minutes.

Even if you can’t resolve a customer issue within 60 minutes, it’s especially important to respond to social media users within that time frame to let them know that you’re working on it. With email customers, you have a bit more leeway: if you can resolve the issue within six hours, then do so and achieve first contact resolution. If you can’t, then update them before the six hours is up.

Never Stop Working on Empathy

While mastering empathy might feel overwhelming at first, it becomes easier and easier as you work on it, just as with any skill.

Try looking for the cues above in the support interactions you have with your customers today, and tailor your responses based on what you identify.

As you practice, you’ll get better, and soon, you’ll be well on your way to building customer loyalty with every interaction.

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