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Empathy: The power to understand someone else

February 26, 2012

empathy (Photo credit: glsims99)






  1. Identification with and understanding of another’s situation, feelings, and motives.

It takes one sentence to describe something that can take years to cultivate in a customer service setting. How often have you called a company with a grievance or complaint and been met with a robotic tone, an uncaring attitude?


How does that make you feel?


If your customer service agents are “strictly business”, and avoid that much needed human component in their day to day business, trust me you will “strictly be losing business”.


In this post, I want to explore a few fundamentals about what it means to be empathetic. I also want to explore what it isn’t. Having coached agents for several years, a response I would typically get when asking “Why did you apologize, or empathize?” was:


“We didn’t do anything wrong.”


This may well be the case. More often than not a customer approaches customer service with just their perspective to work off of. Speaking for myself, I don’t always go over the instruction manual, or the terms and conditions of every contract I sign or appliance I buy. This can and will result in customers calling in to dispute, argue or cancel a product or service.


The question becomes, do we want to push our customer away because they weren’t as thorough as they should have been?


Of course not.


Do we want to let them know that we can understand the situation they are in?




Whether we did something wrong or not, as a fellow human being we can all relate in some way to someone else’s situation.


A simple example would be the loss of a pet.


I can certainly understand how someone would feel if they lost a loved one.


FYI: If relating and understanding another person is something you outright refuse to do. My suggestion would be to consider another line of business. To create a great moment for our customer it is VITAL that we show understanding and care for the situation they present us.


  • Empathy is also not an indicator that we will give away the store.


In my experience another common misconception an agent will have, is that by “understanding” a situation, they are opening the door to give away credits, freebies, promotions, etc.


This is not always the case. Now and again, yes, you will use the tools you have available to you, to help resolve an issue. However, more often than not, if you show your customer concern and care and empathize with their situation, you can very often use the other tools at your disposal; (listening, offering solutions, providing information) to resolve an issue and you didn’t give away a single penny.


I recall an escalated call that came to me once; our customer was very aggravated with her billing. She felt she was paying too much for her services. As a leader in this situation, I didn’t have much to offer her to lower the bill. Instead I spent time letting her know I understood her situation. I myself had gotten a high cell phone bill before, and it had put me in a bad stop. This created an immediate connection with the customer.


Once I had that connection, I brought up some of the great features and benefits of her service; I wanted to find out if she was aware of what she was paying for.

She wasn’t!

No one had ever bothered to tell her about the additional incentives she gets by being a subscriber. By the end of the phone call, I had created a customer for life, who saw the value of the services she was paying for, and I didn’t have to spend a penny to keep her revenue.


Lincoln memorial cent, with the S mintmark of ...

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These are the situation we create when we empathize. They create a long lasting relationship with your customer, and reinforce that we are all humans in this together.

Make a friend, show some empathy.

To summarize:

Empathy, Empathy, Empathy.

If you’re a leader or a coach, call a company you do business with. Take notes on how they react to whatever situation you are calling in about. If they empathize how does that make you feel?

Reinforce this with your agents. Let them know its ok to understand how someone feels, and in the long term will create situations that are positive and grow revenue!





February 16, 2012

Great post and so true!

Social SJSU


As many people know, it is far easier to keep existing customers then try to gain new ones. With the emergence of social media sensations such as Twitter, Facebook, WordPress and many others, everyone is capable of being a company‘s public relations, advertising, or marketing specialists. For this reason, keeping your existing customers is now more important than ever.

In my social media class at San Jose State University, we discussed the six types of customers:

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I’m sorry, can you say that again?

February 16, 2012

The Fine and often underused skill of listening:

English: A left human ear. العربية: أذن بشرية ...

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I don’t know about you, but I find myself consistently aggravated when I call a company, and have to repeat either my name, my reason for the call, or any other number of things multiple times.

It gives me the distinct impression that the person on the other end of the phone is either hearing impaired (Which is forgivable) or doesn’t care a jot about me and my situation.

Couple that with a disinterested tone of voice, and you have the perfect recipe for customer turnover.

For those working in the coaching and development of agents taking phone calls, I want to lay out for you my thoughts on the concept of what It means to listen, in the industry that we work in.  That’s not to say these same skills can’t be applied outside of a customer service setting successfully, but for the purpose of this post, we will focus on a few simple steps that can assist in creating a positive and advantageous interaction.

  • Step 1: Listen

“I’ve been dealing with this situation for almost a week now, my device isn’t working, no one has called me back, and you are still charging me!”

This sample statement can be applied to many a customer interaction.  Working for any size business any number of things can and do go wrong.  Part of how a customer will determine the outcome of the business arrangement, (Never forgot that, the CUSTOMER will have the final say) is based on how a representative listens and acknowledges the situations.

But what does it mean to listen?

Always give active indications that you’re listening.  Phrases such as:

“I understand”

“I see”


These simple statements, during the course of a customer’s explanation are an immediate indicator that you are listening to them.   Silence all too often can be perceived as disinterest, and the first time you hear “Are you still there?” you will know it to be true.

  • Step 2: Acknowledgement

This simply means to phrase in such a way your understanding of the customer’s issue, and your empathy towards it. We will go into greater detail on empathy in another post, but to give you a simple definition of what it means to empathize:

the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also: the capacity for this”

Simple Phrases to Convey your Acknowledgement:

“I understand, and would feel the same way”

“I can see why you’re so upset”

“I’m sorry that we have brought you to this point”

Simple phrases again, can make or break an interaction. Let your customer know that you have listened to them, and understand their concerns.

  • Step 3: Restating

Often times, the nature of a customer contact can be based on confusion with, or inability to utilize or access a product.  If we have taken the time to listen and acknowledge a customer’s concerns, the icing on the cake will be when we restate.

To put this simply, restating in an uncomplicated manner your understanding of the reason a customer called in, confirms absolutely to the customer that you heard them.  As a customer myself, nothing feels better then to hear the person on the other side of the phone repeat back to me what I have just said.

If you’re uncertain about this, try calling a fast food establishment for takeout. Once you’ve made your order, make a note to yourself if they have repeated back to you what your order was.

Pizza I made

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When your large pizza with extra cheese, ends up being covered in anchovies and pineapple, (Not that I have anything against that flavor combination) consider, that it may have been helpful if the order taker had recapped your order.

Some suggestions for phrasing:

“So I understand you are calling because…”

“I just want to clarify with you briefly, the reason your calling is…”

“Let me make sure I have the information I need, your calling for…”

I’m sure we could go into hours and hours of discussion regarding proper listening techniques and how to implement them, but the fundamental ideas I have laid out for you, are a good stepping off point for creating a great customer interaction.  If your business isn’t emphasizing the importance of good listening skills with your representatives you may be creating situations that will not be recoverable either from a customer satisfaction or revenue retained point of view.

Again, I welcome any feedback or thoughts on the ideas listed here. Remember…

I’m listening!

The Iceberg

February 15, 2012
A photomontage of what a whole iceberg might l...

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A great  customer service trainer I once had, shared with me a metaphor that has never left my mind to this day. It was a simple concept but had so much meaning.

“A customer is like an iceberg, there is more going on under the water then you may at first be aware of.”

What does this mean?

Simply put; the next time  you have an upset customer, think about what may be going on in their life.  It could have nothing to do with why they called in.

A great example:

A customer of one of my agents escalated to me once.  She was very irate, upset over a great number of things, from the bill, to the service, to the company. After listening to her concerns, relating to her, she chose to share with me, that she had recently been diagnosed with cancer.  Can you imagine?  My heart went out to her, and in that moment I understood, that very often we can fail to see the REAL reason for someones discontent. Until we dig deeper we will never truly know whats going on.

Dont judge your customers. Listen to them, relate to them, and maybe you might have a friend, and a client for life.

Thank you for reading my blog, my name is Mike, how can I help you today?

February 15, 2012
Customer Service center at 23d Street downtown...

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Recently, I called up my wireless company to make a few changes on my phone plan. I figured it would be a simple in and out procedure.

Being a good customer, I had done a bit of reasearch at my providers website so I could understand the choices that were ahead of me. However, being who I am, I still wanted to hear the sound of another persons voice confirming everything I had done, and assuring me that my choices were well made. I only pay my bills online, but if I want to make a change, you better belive I will be calling in.

What I will be relating to you in the next few paragraphs, shouldnt shock you, if you have ever been a customer calling into a company to do business. It certainly wasnt a horrible interaction, (We will look at those another day), but neither did it truly have any meaning or satisfaction. I wanted to start off examining this interaction, as I thought it would be a great way to kick off this first post, and set an agenda for whats to come.

Without further ado, the interaction: (The names of the parties involved have been kept secret to protect the dissatisfied)

  • Rep: “This is Your Cell Phone Company, what can I do for you?”
  • Me: “Um, Hi, this Is Mike, I was calling in to make a few changes to my plan today?”
  • Rep: Ok sir, can I have your phone or account number.
  • Me: Sure its, 999-999-9999, who am I speaking with?
  • Rep: This is Jim sir, can I have your security pin?
  • Me: Ok, its 12345
  • Rep: What were you looking to change today?
  • Me: Well, I noticed on the website that I wasnt using all of my minutes every month, and I thought I could lower my minutes, so I wasnt paying so much.
  • Rep: Ok, so, you know which plan you want then?
  • Me: Well I had an idea, but I wasnt entirely sure.
  • Rep: Ok, well if you’re looking to save money, I would suggest the starter minutes plan.
  • Me: Well, how much is it?
  • Rep: One second please ………..(Dead Air about 3 minutes)………………..
  • Me: Hello?
  • Rep: ………………….. (Dead Air)
  • Me: Hello?
  • Rep: Hi, its $29.95
  • Me: Oh ok, I thought we had been disconnected.
  • Rep: (Pause) Did you want that plan on today sir?
  • Me: umm, ok sure. It’s the same one I saw on your website right?
  • Rep: Yes sir.

For the sake of brevity I’ll tell you how this ended. It took another five minutes to get my prorated billing squared away, as well as ensure that the plan I wanted was in fact the same one he had put on my account. In fact, about a month later with over twenty dollars in text message charges I discovered it wasnt. You can imagine I wasnt very happy about this when I had to call back in and get everything straightened out. Often during the phone call, I felt more like a dentist trying to pry out tooth, then a customer calling in to make changes.

So what happened?

Lets break the phone call down simply, and discuss what was missing.

Zhuyin on cell phone detail-2

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No personalized greeting, not even a name until I asked!

I’m not big on scripts, (I’ll tell you why another day) but at the very least, tell me who you are. If I had wanted to use the IVR I would have!

No Attempt at building rapport.

As a customer I want to feel appreciated, and If I’m not calling in upset about something, it can’t hurt to ask me how I’m doing, can it?

No Clarification of my request.

It never hurts to restate to a customer what it is they want to change. Very often the root cause of many customer service issues is directly tied to a misunderstanding.

No questions or discussion about my needs and wants.

A few questions about how I use my cell phone service may have kept me from getting put into the wrong plan. Not to mention that no attempt was made to even keep me in the same plan. Again, I can’t stress enough, ask questions.

Dead Air

The worst of the worst. For one I was a bit miffed that my rep didn’t know the prices at his own company, but that’s forgivable, most big companies change their prices and packages daily. What did he do though? Put the phone on his desk to go ask? While none of us like hold music at least I know I’m still somewhere in the company instead of hung up on.


So at the end of the day I may as well have processed everything online. It would have been efficient and hassle free. However, your company’s website has no way to keep me interested. It has no way to build a connection with me. At the end of the day, your agents are responsible for building those relationships that keep your customers paying good money to keep YOU getting paid.

In the weeks to come I plan on sharing what I have learned makes a good customer service experience, specifically targeted at call center work.

If you’re in the industry I hope you will read this blog and offer your own suggestions and ideas as well, good customer service is something we all want to strive for, but there is always a new idea waiting to seed and germinate.