Cultivating Empathy in Customer Experience (CX)

Giorgina Gottlieb | January 4, 2019

Hand draws a red heart with crayon

With greater access to information than ever before, today’s customers are empowered to not only select the products and services that are right for them but also to switch to a competitor the moment their current provider stops meeting their expectations.

The potential to lose customers to a competitor presents a significant churn risk for companies, particularly SaaS businesses.

Customer Trust Crisis

In order to prevent — or at least reduce — churn, it’s crucial for companies to establish and maintain customer loyalty, which goes hand-in-hand with building trust.

This is not only the case when it comes to fighting churn but also for generating referrals to potential new customers. For example, research shows that more than 80 percent of customers would recommend a business to others if they trusted it.

Unfortunately, there’s currently a “trust crisis” affecting CX across the board. Citing findings from Forrester Research’s 2017 Customer Experience Index, among other data, DestinationCRM warns that trust in businesses has decreased significantly.

What’s the antidote to this crisis? After all, it’s not as if you can make customers trust you simply by asking them to do so. Instead, the answer lies in demonstrating empathy.

Building Trust Through Empathy

Not to be confused with sympathy, empathy is “the ability to feel what the other person is feeling,” writes The Sales Blog, “to put yourself in the other person’s shoes in a big and meaningful way.”

As Psychology Today explains, “[B]eing empathetic to the situations of others can promote trust, leading to open and honest communication.”

This is one of those psychological principles that makes sense intuitively. If you feel that someone can relate to your emotions and experiences — or at least is sincerely trying to — you will feel more comfortable sharing and establishing a bond with them.

When viewed through this lens, empathy is clearly essential for personal relationships. But it’s also one of the most important factors in professional relationships, including those between your company and customers.

How to Cultivate Empathy During Customer Interactions

While empathy plays a role in all aspects of the customer journey, it’s particularly significant for customer support and success. These teams serve on the front lines where their daily interactions with customers can make or break a business.

Here are four steps support and success professionals can take to cultivate empathy during customer interactions:

  1. Practice active listening
  2. Let the customer finish
  3. Strike the right tone
  4. Form genuine connections

Practice Active Listening

The starting point for developing empathy in any customer interaction is to listen. “[L]istening to another person shows them that you care about what they are saying, which makes them trust you,” writes enterprise account executive Jake Newfield.

To truly show they care, CS agents must practice active listening to avoid missing any key information during a customer call. After all, if a customer is reaching out to the support department, chances are good that they’re already frustrated. And nothing deepens frustration like forcing someone to repeat themselves.

The same holds true for success managers. While they will likely be conducting outreach to customers rather than receiving trouble tickets, it is nonetheless essential to listen closely to ensure they’ve heard the customer’s questions and feedback correctly and can document them for future discussions.

To make certain the customer not only feels heard but understood (a key element of empathy), support and success professionals should also employ the technique of repeating the customer’s question or comment back to the customer using their own words. They should receive confirmation from the customer that they’ve re-stated the issue accurately before moving on.

Let the Customer Finish

Speaking of moving on, aside from having to repeat themselves, there’s almost nothing that will make a customer more frustrated than being interrupted. It implies that the CS agent or support manager thinks they know better than the customer and don’t care to hear any more of what they have to say.

In addition to conveying a sense of disrespect (which is pretty much the exact opposite of empathy), interrupting a customer will likely intensify any negative emotions they are already feeling, which will ultimately only delay the resolution of their issue.

Instead, to diffuse the negativity, support and success professionals should be sure the customer has a chance to share fully before continuing the conversation. As Kristin Robertson of KR Consulting explains, “‘[E]mpathy absorbs emotion,’ helping get customers into a state of negotiation rather than complaints.”

Strike the Right Tone

Beyond listening actively and allowing the customer to express their thoughts without interruption, support and success professionals should pay careful attention to their tone when communicating with customers.

According to the scientific research detailed in Words Can Change Your Brain, “a single negative word can trigger the release of dozens of stress-producing hormones.”

Thus, even if a customer is angrily venting their frustrations, it’s important to remain as positive as possible. This approach will demonstrate that the CS agent or support manager truly understands the customer’s feelings and is committed to improving the situation.

Moreover, to truly convey empathy, support and success professionals should avoid expressing sympathy. For example, rather than using language like “That must be frustrating,” try saying, “I understand how frustrating that is.”

Form Genuine Connections

Since empathy is created by “putting yourself in someone else’s shoes,” it can be helpful for CS agents and success managers to find shared interests or other commonalities with customers.

Let’s say you notice a customer’s account profile photo shows them wearing your favorite team’s jersey or their area code matches the city where you went to college. Not only will discovering these connections make it easier for you to genuinely put yourself in their shoes, but mentioning the commonality can also help establish a stronger rapport with the customer.

Just remember that empathy requires authenticity. So support and success professionals should ensure that any connection they mention to customers is both truthful and doesn’t feel too generic.

On the other hand, they should also be careful not to venture into any territory that might feel too personal or seem inappropriate. Even an empathetic relationship with a customer must remain professional.

Strategies to Become a More Empathetic Person

The steps outlined above can help support and success professionals express empathy during customer interactions. But there are additional techniques they can employ to augment their overall empathy muscles, which of course will, in turn, continue improving their work with customers.

Here are three strategies for becoming a more empathetic person:

  1. Read (auto)biographies or watch documentaries to expose yourself to true stories about people whose lives differ greatly from your own.
  2. Harness the power of virtual reality to literally see the world from someone else’s perspective, such as this VR app simulating the struggles faced by those living with Parkinson’s Disease.
  3. Deepen your involvement in your community and give back to those in need by becoming a regular volunteer at a local food bank, senior center, or animal shelter.