“Empathy” has become a CX buzzword, but customers aren’t feeling it

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Being able to see things from the customer’s perspective is foundational to creating great customer experiences (CX). 

So why is it that – in the context of CX – the word “empathy” is ringing increasingly hollow? 

The problem is that while most businesses know that empathy is important, many misunderstand (or simply neglect) why it’s important.

Too many businesses are now settling for signaling empathy instead of practicing it. They insert “understanding” language into their contact center scripts and score agents on using that language to the letter. To be clear: this isn’t empathy – it’s performance.

In this post we’ll prove why empty “empathizing” shortchanges both customers and agents, and explore a better way forward.

When “empathy” works …

Before we head too far down this warpath (and at the risk of sounding emptily empathetic ourselves), let’s just say this first … 

We get it. Businesses have their reasons to put pseudo-empathetic words into their agents’ mouths. 

After all, customers (especially unhappy customers) really do want to feel understood. And sometimes, even a mere expression of empathy can be enough to make customers feel they are.

These expressions can be a particularly powerful tool with which to placate angry customers. Utilizing empathetic statements is a well-established technique for defusing anger in all sorts of conversations. (It’s the third step in the highly influential 3-step Imago Technique, for example.) 

But while empathetic statements might help service agents bring the temperature down on potentially contentious interactions, there are certainly downsides to mandating their indiscriminate deployment across all interactions. 

When “empathy” alienates … 

Some of those downsides are highlighted by a fascinating thread on Reddit’s CustomerService forum (where, incidentally, you’ll get some of the most candid takes on working in customer service outside of your agents’ secret WhatsApp group): “CSR ‘empathy’; seems a little patronizing.” 

The thread creator starts by relaying how they have recently called up a company to resolve a billing issue and were met by a rep “telling me how frustrating it must be to deal with what I’m dealing with and they ‘understand.’” They then proceed to explain why this turned them off. 

To begin with, they’ve encountered this sort of rote “empathy” before. They immediately recognize it – and see right through it: “I’ve run into this before with various companies and every time it just comes off feeling a bit disingenuous.” 

This isn’t atypical. Your customers are savvy. They’ve endured a lifetime of companies bluffing their way into their wallets. They can spot fake empathy as it’s being delivered – and most show up to contact center phone calls primed to expect it. 

And when those expectations are met, real damage happens.

The costs of pretending to care

Pseudo-empathetic statements aren’t just ineffective – they actively alienate customers. 

Scripted expressions of sympathy can dehumanize agents in the eyes of the customer, as the thread creator points out: ‘“I feel like the best support experiences I have had were where the rep was allowed to do their actual jobs while encouraged to be themselves instead of trying to turn actual humans into bots.”  

Dealing with a constricted, semi-automated agent undercuts the whole point of expressing empathy – to create an emotional, human connection between the agent and customer that makes it easier for them to work together.  

Perhaps most damaging, though, is the suspicion that, as one of the respondents to the thread puts it: “some businesses substitute actual problem-solving with empathy.

After all, perhaps the most important thing to understand from a customer’s perspective when they’ve got in touch with a contact center is that they want their issue solved

They didn’t call up for your sympathy – they called up for a solution. Taking up their valuable time with disingenuous expressions of understanding is actually demonstrating a lack of empathy for them.

And let’s not forget about how agents feel here. Imagine what it’s like to be required to tell a customer that you’re feeling what they’re feeling, when you know that’s not what they particularly want or need to hear – because otherwise you’ll be marked down. 

Understandably, many agents feel equally, if not more, unenthusiastic about mandatory empathizing as customers. “Every CS job I’ve ever had made me do this,” writes one respondent to the thread. “Sadly we get scored on meeting that empathy statement. Nobody likes it.”

When “empathy” doesn’t require quotation marks around it anymore …

To their credit, businesses do recognize the need for introducing empathy into customer-to-agent interactions. They’re just going about it the wrong way. 

Expressions of “empathy” for a customer in a predicament are no substitute for being able to actually understand that predicament – and do something about it. 

But how can businesses – and agents – actually put themselves in their customer’s shoes? 

One way is to think more about how your customers actually feel about your CX – both before and during their dealings with your contact center. 

More specifically: what frustrates them about it? 

One or two ideas will leap to mind for you right away (perhaps prompting a wince or sigh). And you might find what you’re thinking of in our Taxonomy of Hidden CX Frustrations: a round-up of the most pernicious potholes to be found in even the smoothest of modern digital customer journeys.

On a more immediately practical level, you’re going to need to elevate your customer-to-agent interactions with browser-based tools that make it easy for agents and customers to have shared, genuinely empathetic experiences. 

Because when agents can see what a customer is seeing, in real-time (and vice versa), visually guide them to where they need to navigate next (or even do it for them), and speak face-to-face to them through video chat – that’s a recipe for authentic empathy. Agents can be themselves and actually solve customer issues, too.
Head to our Experience the Solutions page to find out how our solutions create unscripted human connections (and drive rapid solutions) in your digital CX.

Photo by Benjamin Davies on Unsplash

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