Leading with Empathy: Demonstrate Understanding, Care and Compassion for Customers and Employees


Leading with Empathy, November 2020 Feature

Everyone could use a little more empathy these days. The desire to feel heard and understood is a basic human need, and one that has a proven impact for companies. Numerous studies have linked empathy in the workplace to increased revenue and higher employee and customer satisfaction.

It’s no surprise then that the demand for empathy in the business world has been on the rise. Consumers increasingly patronize the brands that practice volunteerism and demonstrate compassion for their employees, communities, social causes and environmental issues. Within the workplace, employee loyalty and retention is highest at companies where leaders regularly demonstrate that they put the needs and well-being of their employees first.

And yet, the current “selfie culture” has been weakening this core skill in younger generations. Children who spend much of their time plugged into self-focused media are less likely to learn how to read the emotional cues associated with face-to-face communication.

Jim Rembach
Jim Rembach

As Jim Rembach, President of the Call Center Coach Virtual Leadership Academy and host of the Fast Leader Show Podcast, explains, empathy has been steadily declining for decades. “Empathy is but one of the 54 emotional intelligence (EI) competencies you need to improve your EI. But it gets most of the attention because the skills have been decreasing with each passing generation,” he says. “During her guest appearance on the Fast Leader Show Podcast, Michele Borba, educational psychologist and author of ‘UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed In Our All-About-Me World,’ shared that, over the past 30 years, there has been a 40% drop in empathy among incoming college freshman.”

This year, COVID-19 and pandemic-related anxiety has thrust empathy into the spotlight as a high-demand skill required at all levels of the company. The challenge, though, is that executives and employees view how empathy is demonstrated in the workplace through very different lenses. In fact, there currently exists a significant and widening gap in opinions when it comes to how well organizations demonstrate empathy. According to the “2020 State of Empathy in the Workplace” study by Businessolver, 90% of CEOs said they believe that their organization is empathetic while only 68% of employees agree (a 10-point decline over the previous two years).

Clearly, executives and employees have different workplace goals and objectives, which influences how they define the benefits associated with an empathetic company culture. The study points out that CEOs see empathy as a path to improved financial performance, while employees say it drives their individual motivation and productivity.

Sangeeta Bhatnagar
Sangeeta Bhatnagar

A first step in narrowing this perception gap may be to clear up existing misperceptions about what, exactly, empathy is, since it has become a marketing buzzword, says Sangeeta Bhatnagar, Founder of contact center and CX talent acquisition firm SB Global, which specializes in EI and human behavior assessments. “According to a leader in the study of EI and empathy, Daniel Goldman, there are three types of empathy: cognitive, emotional and empathic concern,” which Goldman defines as:

  • Cognitive: We understand the perspectives of others.
  • Emotional: We understand how others feel.
  • Empathic concern: We care about others and take action to help them if needed.

Applying Empathy to Stakeholder Relationships

Empathy has varying impacts depending on the type of relationship. So how can it be applied to key stakeholder relationships within an organization?

“How and why people feel the way they do is very complicated. It gets even more problematic when viewed across your entire ecosystem,” says Rembach, who is a Certified Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. “You need to take a big-picture view to reduce conflict, increase first-contact resolution, reduce escalations, have collaborative relationships, and get more done faster.”

Let’s take a look at how to apply empathy within three key relationships: brands to customers; company leaders to employees; and supervisors to team members.

Brands to Customers

Customer experience professionals have long been leading the charge to engage with customers at every touchpoint and via multiple channels. This year, COVID-19 has made the effort to understand customers’ emotions, fears and pain points even more critical, albeit uniquely challenging.

Nancy Porte

“Even though we’re about eight months into the pandemic, it still has a firm grip on our everyday lives,” says Nancy Porte, Vice President of Global Customer Experience for Verint. “It’s no surprise that Americans are suffering from COVID-19 fatigue, which is impacting consumer behavior. From travel to healthcare to banking and everything in between, consumers are faced with more complex buying decisions, which can result in even more complicated customer service issues. Consumers are leaning heavily on contact centers and digital channels to get the answers they need, which is why it’s so important for brands to integrate empathy into all customer experience touchpoints. I’ve often said that a company’s mission stays the same in good times and bad, but it’s the customer experience tactics that change. From grand gestures like cruise lines fully refunding scheduled cruises to small sincere actions like a personal phone call, empathy can quickly change a negative customer experience into a positive one. But if not done the right way, empathy can go very wrong.”

To help mitigate this risk, Porte recommends that brands implement the following steps to demonstrate empathy for their customers:

  • Understand customer business needs and see the situation from their point of view.
  • Listen on different levels. Conduct personal phone calls with top customers while surveying the broader customer base to understand what challenges customers are facing related to your product. During this process, be sure to review your surveys for relevance and empathy.
  • Take what you’ve learned and proactively communicate relevant content on a regular basis. For example, update your product knowledge base to address new issues or hold webinars that address frequent questions and common issues that customers have surfaced.
  • Anticipate what your customers need next. The world is still in crisis due to the pandemic. What helps is acknowledging that, like the stages of grief, every crisis has its phases—disruption, exploration, and rebuilding. Use these stages to list possible customer needs and develop a plan for communicating appropriately with them at every phase.
  • Know that customer advocacy is a long-term strategy. The companies that already understand their customers through exercises like journey mapping will probably weather this crisis more easily.

Brands that effectively demonstrate em­pathy for customers during challenging times typically report higher customer loyalty and retention rates. Porte provides this example: “Recently, one of our customers, a health insurance company, reported that their customer service satisfaction scores have gone up during the pandemic. What’s surprising is that the time to resolve issues is still the same—and the length of the call is actually going up. However, their teams are extending an extra dose of empathy to their customers during the pandemic—particularly when the agent may be faced with a new issue and may not have an answer right away. Agents have been honest saying they understand the situation and will get back to the customer as soon as possible. As a result, that extra dose of empathy is improving the brand image while fostering customer loyalty because keeping customers now is more important than ever.”

Company Leaders to Employees

Some companies claim to be employee-centric and promote their people-first mission statements, meanwhile their top executives routinely display a shocking lack of empathy toward employees by reverting to profit-driven actions in times of crisis or economic uncertainty.

Customers and employees recognize when leaders are being authentic or whether they’re simply paying lip-service to publicized corporate values. Senior leaders that abide by the company’s core values help to build credibility and trust among workers. Those that feel exempt or operate above the rules only widen the gap between leadership and staff, and contribute to a toxic, high-turnover culture.

Bhatnagar notes that empathy is the foundation to strong, meaningful workplace relationships. When examining the leader-employee relationship, in particular, she explains that “it is critical that genuine empathy for the employees is utilized in areas such as creating policies, hours, compensation and work environment. To have full engagement in the marketplace today, employees need to know and feel that the executive team values and understands them.”

Rembach offers this advice for company executives who want to improve their empathy skills: “Be visible and ask more open-ended questions. Be vulnerable about your feelings and discuss how essential listening is to the customer and workplace experience.”

Empathetic leaders are typically much more self-aware, adds Bhatnagar. “With this self-awareness comes increased mindfulness toward thought, actions and behaviors,” she says. “Great culture starts at the top! Self-aware leaders attract and hire other self-aware team members. Being self-aware allows us to understand our own personal strengths, weaknesses or opportunities for growth, and our core morals and values.”

Practical Tips for Call CentersPractical pointer: Many contact center leaders rely on a tried-and-true method for creating empathy for frontline agents among company executives: Spending time on the phones. Execs typically find that plugging in with an agent, or handling calls on their own, can be an eye-opening experience—one that provides them with renewed respect for the role and the work that agents do.

Supervisors to Team Members

The relationship that frontline supervisors develop with agents has considerable impact on employee engagement and retention. “Having genuine empathy deepens relationships along with the joy of those connections,” says Bhatnagar. “In a workplace environment, you will be able to better understand how others think and feel. This alone will help build team collaboration, increase efficiencies and improve productivity. Happier team members make for a better workforce. Today, with our multigenerational and multicultural workforces, it is more important than ever to understand those that are different from you.

“Empathy is a basic building block for strong relationships,” she adds. “It is typically displayed through real listening, and also by asking meaningful questions.”

Bhatnagar offers the following recommendations for empathetically connecting with others in the workplace:

  • Actively listen to each peer, customer, team member and employee. This will give you insights into their concerns, mindsets, thoughts and emotions.
  • Delve deeper by asking questions that show you care. Whether you’re leading a team or you’re an agent trying to understand a customer’s problem, asking questions and truly listening will help you begin to cognitively understand their point of view. Regardless of the relationship, we all have something in common and that is “make me feel that I matter.”
  • Take time to reflect on yourself, your habits and situations in your life. We all have different strengths, weaknesses, thoughts, upbringing, personality traits and temperaments. Since we are all unique, we need to examine our own tendencies. Honest reflection hopefully leads to greater self-awareness and increased mindfulness of one’s self.

In their November Pipeline column on “The Four Most Important Skills for Leading Hybrid Teams,” Afshan Kinder and Mike Aoki recommend that managers “engage in ‘getting to know you’ conversations.” The authors advise: “Don’t make your interactions entirely business-focused. Pay attention to your team members’ mental health. People want to know that you care about them as a person. Role-model the empathy you want your agents to show to their customers.”

Mark Pereira agrees. As a trainer and on-site supervisor for Briljent, Pereira firmly believes that when supervisors connect with agents on a human level with understanding and caring, while providing support and resources through challenging times, they can better guide individual agents toward higher performance and engagement (read his post, “Why Empathy in Leadership Matters”).

Again, self-awareness is a critical skill for leaders at all levels to cultivate, but it is especially valuable when communicating with team members who are on the front lines of your company communicating with anxious callers and dealing with heightened emotions.

As Bhatnagar pointed out in her May 2020 Pipeline column, “The COVID-19 Crisis: Do We Put Our Energy into People, Process or Technology?”: “Understanding communication styles and needs according to personality temperament is so important as we navigate remotely through stressful times. It is also important to be aware of your temperament and style. We all can adapt once we are aware of our behaviors and tendencies. For instance: Understand yourself and how you tend to communicate under a variety of stress levels; understand each other and how those around you will respond to your communication style; and adapt your style to communicate in a more clear, concise and thoughtful manner to serve the needs of those around you.”

Practical Tips for Call CentersPractical pointer: To improve empathy skills in a supervisor-to-agent relationship, Rembach ad­vises: “Seek a deeper understanding of your people’s feelings, needs and goals. Then use this insight in your one-on-ones and development planning.”