Call Center Agent Appreciation
Illustration by Pedro Nakazato Andrade

While sitting on the panel during a town hall meeting of contact center leaders, I was asked by Mary, one of the attendees, “I need to improve the empathy skills of my agents. Where can I get training for that?”

Being a person who loves to help others and hates to give partially correct information, I asked Mary why she felt that way.

She proceeded to explain a real call situation where a customer called and requested a return for a product. The customer explained to Sue, the agent she was speaking with, that she needed to return a product her husband had ordered. The product was for him, but he had suddenly died two days earlier.

Mary said that, when she listened to the recorded call, the woman was struggling to speak when she mentioned her husband passing away just a few days prior. Mary was herself brought to tears, just as I would have been, listening to this conversation.

Mary told us that Sue immediately asked the customer, “…do you have your receipt?” Mary was crushed to hear that Sue never acknowledged the words or feelings of the caller and just when on processing the return.
Mary explained to us that Sue is not a cold person and that she is not the type of person to intentionally hurt the feelings of another person. This brought Mary to the conclusion that Sue needed Empathy Training.

What Is Empathy?
It’s really important to reveal that Empathy is one of the 54 Emotional Intelligence (EQ) competencies, but it captures a lot of attention by itself. Just like you, I must ward off the societal influences and pressures to judge people and jump to conclusions and to be apathetic to others. Following many of the societal influences will lower your EQ.

Many people say that, as a society, empathy is scarce. And that we are raising a generation that has tuned out and is socially dysfunctional. The result of this is that organizations have to spend effort and money on ways to increase customer empathy, which they have never had to invest in before. And they must do it because customer experience is now the main point of competitive differentiation. And Empathy is a core component in creating exceptional customer experiences.

But for the record, societal influence is not what caused Sue to behave the way she did. It was something more.

What Is Customer Empathy?
Customer Empathy is the skill of understanding how and why customers feel the way they do and to communicate it effectively. If you understand the how and why of customer feelings, then you will be better prepared to solve their problems and meet their needs.

There are five things that Mary must do in order to improve the customer empathy skills of her contact center agents. These five things can increase customer empathy and help to engage customers at a significantly deeper level. Doing these things can help to create more successful moments out of calls like the one Sue had.

1. Become a customer (have agents do it). Go beyond mystery shopping and actually become your customer. Have agents take the time to document every touchpoint and interaction. Pay special attention to what the perception might be if you and they didn’t have your knowledge. Go the extra mile and create a return and escalate a customer service interaction. Take your own survey. You will get an entirely new perspective—and hopefully not lose an agent.

2. Go Beyond Journey Mapping (Do Empathy Mapping). Having an illustration of how your customers move through different touchpoints and parts of your contact center is great. But mapping their experiences in a process-driven method is not enough to understand what they feel, what they see, what they say, their fears and their motivations. To connect with their hearts and minds you need Empathy Mapping. Then you can walk through the customer journey and have a greater understanding of how to better engage customer and what you need to do to lower customer dissatisfaction.

3. Increase your Emotional Intelligence (EQ). EQ has been proven to contribute greatly to the success of individuals and organizations. Those with higher EQ outperform all others with similar intellectual knowledge. EQ helps you to relate more skillfully with fellow employees and customers. EQ helps you to control your behavior and emotions better. EQ helps you to be more self-aware and prevents being blinded by problems that increase customer effort.

4. Learn a new language. The words we use can hurt others and prevent people from engaging. Is your business language full of fear-invoking behavior? If your office language is full of words like risk, accountability, threats, attrition, turnover, policy and prohibited, it’s time to stop and look at the behavior that creates. This fear prevents the ability to show customer empathy. It shuts contact center agents down and puts them in survival mode. It is counterproductive? Instead, make sure that you overuse words like opportunity, aspiration, ownership, appreciation, gratitude, hope, trust and believe.

5. Get your “but” out of the way. When you use the word “but,” it most often is used to kill creative thinking. As a society, we have gotten into a bad habit of saying, “Yes, but…” when we reply to a thought or idea that someone has shared. Your “but” is preventing you from experiencing a deeper level of connection and understanding. It is killing your own creativity. Next time when you have the urge to say, “Yes, but…” try to say: “Explain that a little more, so I can understand better.” Then, get ready to learn something.

When customers call your contact center, or anytime you attempt to connect with customers, you have an opportunity to engage. As you can see, your attempt to engage can be handicapped before it even occurs.
For Mary, increasing customer empathy is more than just teaching people phrases like: “I’m so sorry you’re experiencing this problem,” or “I know how frustrating it can be when that happens.” Because just saying those things are not enough when customers keep experiencing the same problems.

Customer empathy is more than words. You must incorporate the environment and habits that prove you are empathetic—because empathy only works when it’s genuine.

The best way to prevent forced empathy is to learn how not to have to use those phrases of empathy. That is what these five things can do for you: Build a culture of empathy.