Empathy and Customer Support: Finding the Right Balance

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Empathy is a powerful way to build trust, but leaning too far can also backfire. One thing I’ve been wondering after 3.5 years at Buffer as a customer advocate is how can we effectively use empathy to improve the customer service experience?

“The act of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another, whether past or present, without the feelings, thoughts, and experience being communicated completely in an objectively explicit way”. Merriam-webster.com

When I sat down to write this article, I struggled with how to begin talking about empathy. Initially I wanted to start along the lines of “Empathy is a powerful tool,” but I felt that this gave the impression that we should feign empathy to get what we want; handling it as a tool to be used when needed.

Perhaps a better way to put it is that empathy is an incredibly powerful part of the customer service toolkit. It can help us get closer to the customer experience and better understand what they need from us. This will help them leave this interaction feeling cared for and us, as support professionals, feeling rewarded.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

The power of empathy

“I was literally blown away by the amount of patience and kindness they treated me with. And this has been done consistently whenever I’ve had a query or a problem. I really appreciate it. Especially since I’m so out of my depth with digital technology. which makes me feel rather vulnerable and are at the mercy of those who know best, is especially appreciated. Your service never lacks humanity and compassion and in an age where so much is regulated by computer programs, this stands out in a bright light.” —Customer reviews (February 2022)

Empathy has incredible power in the customer service experience. It has the power to make the customer feel heard diffuse a customer’s anger, i deescalated a tense situation. When a customer writes in with a complaint and we respond with genuine empathy, it can communicate several things:

  • Validation that they are encountering a real problem;
  • Our understanding that the issue is important to them;
  • Acknowledgment that your issue is now important to us; i
  • News that we want to solve the problem with them.

As a customer service professional, if we feel empathy for the customer who is writing, we will want to work harder to help them. It can even inspire us to think of creative solutions to problems that are beyond our control. If we can successfully solve the problem for the customer, there is also the added benefit of job satisfaction. Our brain rewards us for helping others.

Too much empathy can backfire

“Your answer is unpleasant.” —Customer comments (February 2021)

When I first joined Buffer’s customer service team, we saw empathy as one of the key aspects of any customer service experience. In fact, during ticket reviews, we were measured on three things: Accuracy, Clarity, and Empathy (later changed to Awareness, Clarity, and Empowerment). Over time, however, we began to recognize this too much empathy, or to prioritize empathy above all else., it wasn’t ideal either.

While customers want to feel heard, their number one goal is to solve their problem. For some customers, an empathic response, without a clear understanding of the actions being taken, irritates them and makes them feel worse about the situation and the interaction. What customers need from us are solutions and not a shoulder to cry on.

Let’s do a little thought exercise to see this in action: You work at an electronics store and a customer walks in with a broken TV that he recently bought from you. Common courtesy aside, they’re not looking for you to spend the first five minutes of their time together explaining how well you understand the frustration they must have experienced during their ordeal. They are not even looking for you to provide a refund for the device. Instead, they want their TV to work; they need to understand that you are taking action. (Thanks, Ross, for this fun illustration!)

Expressing too much empathy can come across as fake even if our response is coming from a genuine place. Likewise, in cases where we are empathetic but unable to offer a solution to the customer, empathy itself can make a customer feel even angrier.

Too much empathy can negatively affect support agents

“Working with dissatisfied clients can be tough. Some matters are very complex and require a lot of problem solving, which is emotionally and mentally draining.” —Buffer Customer Advocate

Too much empathy can also be detrimental to our well-being. If we are too empathetic, we risk, to paraphrase a colleague of mine, “Joining them in the pit of their despair, instead of helping them out” (Thanks for that nugget, Dave!). Being too empathetic in customer service, where we are inundated daily with numerous problems and complaints from different customers, can also lead to burnout.

Find the right balance

So far, I have said:

  • Empathy = Good
  • Too much empathy = Bad

How do we find balance? There is no perfect answer, but for me there are generally three rules I follow when working with clients.

(1) Any empathy he expresses must be genuine

Customer service advocates, at least within Buffer, already have pretty high levels of empathy, so feeling empathy for a customer would normally come naturally. As a human, living in the modern world, I have often felt incredibly frustrated with technology, different companies, or customer service experiences. Because of these experiences, I can relate and empathize with most of the clients that come to us.

In cases where I am not naturally empathizing with the client, I find it helpful to try to put myself in the client’s shoes. I could make up a story to help, like imagine that the client had been reprimanded by their boss for a mistake that might be related to the problem they’re facing with Buffer. I might try to imagine that I am a different person who feels the way the customer feels, even though I myself would not feel that way in the same situation. It takes a little more effort, but it makes the interaction more genuine and can positively affect the outcome of the conversation.

(2) I will default action

While empathy is part of our toolkit, our primary tool is “action”. Our job is to help customers solve their problems: first identify what the problem is and then find a solution or next step. This is the primary goal of every interaction and without action at the forefront, no amount of empathy will be enough.

(3) Maintain health limits

There are two boundaries I like to keep in mind: the client’s and my own. To me, protecting a client’s boundary means not over-apologizing. While we can feel incredibly bad for the customer, our job is to find solutions and empower and improve our customers. Generally speaking, we can usually avoid over-apologizing if we are genuine and driven to find solutions.

Protecting my own boundaries means knowing when to redirect or end a conversation. There may be cases where I don’t know how to solve a customer’s problem. A healthy boundary would be knowing when to escalate the conversation to another level of support.

There may be other cases where a conversation is too much to handle, and then I can lean on Buffer’s teammate protection commitment and hand off the conversation to another colleague or team leader. This is especially important when it comes to threatening and abusive behavior that would put my own psychological well-being at risk.

There may be times when you reach an impasse with the client. Where no solution fits the customer’s needs and no response will slow down the conversation, where any response makes the customer angrier. When further discussion does not seem productive, I end the conversation knowing that I have done my best for them.

(4) Review stimulating conversations

For every clothing conversation you come across, chances are there’s one or more thought-provoking conversations that have come our way. There are even more positive conversations to explore when looking across the team, so making an effort to celebrate and highlight them can be incredibly rewarding and uplifting.

At Buffer, we share particularly poignant messages publicly with our team on Slack (with the client’s identity redacted). Our teammate Cheryl also publishes a monthly Customer Satisfaction Report (CSAT) to our team, highlighting all the positive feedback we’ve received. Something like this can match our natural human focus on improvement.

Balance is difficult

The above are my personal opinions on the role of empathy in the customer service experience. It’s also my current “ideal”. Not only will my views on this change over time, but how close I stay to my “ideal” will change with each interaction. Finding the balance is difficult and every client is different. Our moods on different days and at different times also vary. The important thing is to know that we are doing our best.

If you read to the end of this article, it means you care enough about your craft to invest time reading more opinions about it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts: How do you see empathy in customer service? Send us a tweet with the hashtag #customersupportthoughts.

This article was originally published on our support blog.

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