It should come as no surprise that customer service that is infused with empathy, kindness, and compassion results in better overall interactions, and more successful outcomes.
But how exactly does this happen? What’s the skillset that needs to be developed, that will make empathy-based customer service your default mode? In the heat of the moment, how do you actually put yourself in the customer’s shoes, and offer a solution that you yourself would want to experience in that situation?
Reactivity vs. Response-Ability
The first step is to step back from habitual reactivity: from “flying off the handle,” so to speak. When we’re triggered into emotional reactivity, our capacity to respond appropriately–professionally, effectively, and openheartedly–is greatly compromised. Emotional reactivity clouds our thinking. And a fight-or-flight-or-freeze response tends only to escalate conflict. While a customer may approach us with an adversarial attack/defend mentality, it’s our job to not get drawn into this drama.
Our response-ability depends, first and foremost, on remaining neutral, and retaining a sense of even-minded equanimity: spacious, relaxed, and rational. This is the first step toward offering empathy-based customer service. This kind of mental-emotional equanimity will enhance your clarity: your capacity to see the situation clearly, and respond intelligently.
Taking The High Road
This doesn’t mean that you won’t ever feel angry, frustrated, disappointed, or sad–just that you won’t collapse into those emotions. You can allow the energy of these emotions to flow through your body and mind, but choose not to be drawn into their dramas. This will allow you to take the high road of patience, empathy, and compassion.
Instead of fighting fire with fire, you can recall an instance in which you were in a similar position, or imagine what it might be like, to be standing in the customer’s shoes. This will water the seeds of empathy within you, and begin to transform the situation in a positive way.
Don’t Take It Personally
Another way of saying this is that we don’t take it personally, when a customer is expressing anger, agitation, frustration, impatience or whatever. We understand that the customer is reacting to challenging circumstances–perhaps entirely unskillfully, or perhaps in a way that’s quite justified. And while we may be “in the line of fire,” it really is nothing personal.
This kind of attitude and understanding creates space to transform an adversarial situation into a mutually-beneficial win-win outcome.
And this also sets the stage for being able to put yourself in their shoes: to imagine how you would feel or act in a similar situation. You might even–if it feels appropriate–share with the customer your own experience of something similar. Not taking a complaint personally (i.e. as a personal affront or attack) gives you the freedom to empathize with the customer.
Putting Yourself In The Customer’s Shoes
How exactly this plays out will of course depend upon the unique in-the-moment circumstances. But let’s have a look at some common customer-service scenarios, to get a sense of how empathy-based customer service might actually be applied.
1. Being a hotel guest.
Let’s begin with a scenario in which the customer isn’t yet present, such as preparing a room for a hotel guest. In this instance, customer service isn’t about resolving an adversarial situation. Instead, it’s about anticipating a guest’s needs and preferences. The first step toward putting yourself in the guest’s shoes might be to imagine that you were preparing the space not for a complete stranger, but rather for a dear friend who you haven’t seen in many years. You would want your friend’s living quarters to be wonderfully comfortable, with some pleasant surprises.
Once you’ve transformed the notion of “preparing the room for a stranger” into “preparing the room for a dear friend,” it becomes easy to place yourself entirely in the guest’s shoes. Ask yourself: What makes me feel really well cared-for when I’m staying at a hotel? And proceed accordingly, to create the space (and then maintain it, once the guest has arrived) is a way that you would most appreciate, in you were the guest.
2. Returning a defective product.
Now let’s consider a more challenging situation. You’re face-to-face with a customer who is returning a defective product, say a high-end juicer. The customer is visibly agitated, and angry that the juicer doesn’t work. He wants his money back immediately, yet doesn’t have the original receipt with him.
The first step, as outlined above, is to avoid being drawn into a push-pull dynamic. Whatever words are being spoken, and whatever emotions might be arising–don’t take it personally. Instead, maintain a spacious equanimity, which allows you to see the situation clearly. Then imagine being in the customer’s shoes, and ask yourself: How would I like to be treated, if I were in this situation? The actions that come out of this question may look something like this:
In a kind voice, and while making gentle eye contact, you apologize for the juicer being defective. Expressing genuine concern, you share with the customer that you can understand how disappointing and frustrating that must be. Then you clearly relay your store’s policy on exchanges or returns, and verbally commit to facilitating the process as quickly as possible. You end by thanking the customer for his business, and offering him a 25% discount on his next purchase at your store.
3. Being shuffled around or put on hold.
Sometimes phone interactions can be the most intense ones–caustic and even verbally abusive–because at a distance the customer (and you also, if you’re not careful) can lose touch with the humanity of the person they’re addressing. So let’s consider the case of a customer who is giving you an earful over the phone, about her long wait time, or about being shuffled from one customer service representative to another one. She screams: “I’ve been waiting forever!” and “You don’t seem to care at all!” and “What do I have to do to get someone to actually help me?!”
Once again, the first step in applying empathy-based customer service is to avoid being triggered into emotional reactivity. Take a couple of deep breaths, if you need to, in order to avoid escalating the adversarial energy. This kind of equanimity will keep you connected to your freedom and clarity. Don’t take it personally! Instead, offer a sincere apology to the customer, and then ask yourself: If I were in a similar situation, how would I like to be treated? With the intention and motivation to speak to her in a way that you would like to be spoken to, continue the conversation.
Avoiding Idiot Compassion
True empathy and compassion is also infused with wisdom and clarity. What this means is that sometimes strong words or forceful actions are called for–and are actually the most compassionate response to a situation. If, for instance, an angry customer is endangering the lives of other people, acting forcefully for the overall good is the most compassionate thing to do.
So you don’t have to be a doormat, or engage in the sort of “idiot compassion” that’s clearly not skillful.
But such situations are the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, gentle friendly words and actions get the job done, perfectly.
Empathy-Based Customer Service: A Win-Win Aproach
Empathy-based customer service is a win-win approach, because it’s based in the truth that “we’re all in this together.” It’s rooted in a vision of our shared humanity and basic goodness.
When we take the time to recognize ourselves in another person, then skillful action–and outstanding customer service–flows effortlessly. An excellent resource for further study on how to relate to others from a place of compassion and empathy is Pema Chodron’s book Comfortable with Uncertainly: 108 Teachings on Cultivating Fearlessness and Compassion.
Questions or comments? Please feel free to contact us. We’d love to support your company in taking customer service and hospitality to the next level of excellence.