• November 1, 2015
  • By David Myron, Editorial Director, CRM and Speech Technology magazines and SmartCustomerService.com

Let Empathy Toward Customers Guide You

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What is the most essential quality for your sales, marketing, or customer service employees to have? It's an intriguing question, because it forces executives and managers to put more emphasis on the qualities they find most important in their employees.

In a recent Twitter discussion about customer service, Marsha Collier, a business and technology author and analyst, asked, "What in your opinion is the most essential quality for a customer service rep?"

Jay Wilson, a marketing analyst at Gartner, responded, "Empathy. Hands down."

It's an excellent answer—one that is applicable to many types of jobs. An empathetic employee will listen to customers, understand their needs, and be motivated to provide them with the right solution. They're also more likely to recommend improvements that could better serve customers. Clearly, empathetic employees are valuable assets.

So how do you build an empathetic team? You could start with your hiring process. Look for signs of empathy on a job applicant's resume—volunteer experience suggests that the applicant believes money isn't the only valuable thing in life. You could also ask some character-revealing questions during the job interview: Which is your favorite charity? Are you a regular supporter? If you were walking and found an injured bird lying on the ground, what would you do? We all have people we dislike. Why did you dislike a former coworker, student, or professor, and how did you deal with that person? Tell me a story about how you solved a conflict or disagreement between you and a former colleague, student, or professor.

These are character-revealing questions, but they are not foolproof, as candidates might tell you what they think you want to hear. As a result, you could hire someone who isn't as empathetic as he intimated. Fortunately, all is not lost.

Empathy can't be taught—people either have it or they don't. But empathy can be nurtured, and most people are capable of being empathetic—even disengaged employees. They simply need to connect with colleagues and customers on an emotional level. One way to do this is to share how their work affects customers. An emotional message from a customer, praising an employee for saving something important to her, will go a long way toward making colleagues more empathetic. (It's also likely that this will lift employees' spirits and make them feel as though their work has meaning and value.)

While it's essential to have empathetic employees, it's not enough. Organizations must make it a priority to empower these valuable team members with the right information so they can be more effective. A call center agent can genuinely want to help a customer, but not know how. In the column "Putting Purpose into Practice," Woody Driggs and Jeffrey Stier at Ernst & Young astutely state that organizations need "employees who are empathic, highly engaged, and trained to deliver an exceptional customer experience." Without the right training, even the most empathetic employee will struggle to help customers.

Creating a culture of empathy toward customers also applies to the products a company sells, the processes it creates, and the customer-facing technologies it purchases. In this month's issue, we dedicated three features to the latter, more specifically, to mobile customer-facing technologies: “How Amazon and Salesforce.com Are Shaping Mobile Customer Support,” by Senior News Editor Leonard Klie; "Mobile-First Strategies Take Hold in Emerging Markets," by Phillip Britt; and "Third-Party Power: The Rise of the B2B App Store," by Associate Editor Oren Smilansky. As you examine these mobile solutions, let empathy toward your customers be your guide. Don't simply purchase a technology simply because of its many bells and whistles. Make sure your purchasing decision is purpose-driven, not only for your company and employees but for your customers as well.

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