Great Customer Service Takes Empathy

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Two years ago, my husband and I were at a Midwest airport getting ready to fly to Seattle when we received an urgent phone call. We needed to immediately reroute our flight to California because a family member there was having a serious medical situation. We approached our airline’s ticket counter and waited while four or five customer service agents assisted other passengers. When we finally got called up to the counter, the agent we saw heard our story, looked at our tickets, and flatly told us that all flights were oversold and we would have to wait until the next day.

We left the counter and immediately started grousing about the poor service when my husband had another idea. “Hey,” he said, “why don’t we get into line again and try another agent?”

The strategy worked. A new agent empathized with our situation and immediately got us on a different plane so we could get to our loved one. My husband summarized the situation: “There are ‘yes’ people and ‘no’ people,” he said. “Always find the ‘yes’ ones because they will do whatever it takes to help you in your situation.”

What made the interaction so memorable was the second agent’s sense of empathy, which Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another.”

In customer service, this means being able to put yourself into the shoes of your customer, understand his situation, and do something about it to relieve pain or satisfy a need.

“The real customer service superstars exhibit two key characteristics: They understand what their customers are looking for, and they are willing to show that they care,” says customer service consultant Cary Cavitt. “They show their customers appreciation and respect, and if they had a single characteristic, it would be empathy.”

Empathy can be shown in multiple ways. It begins with sympathizing with a customer’s plight. Second, empathy is demonstrated by solving a problem right on the spot. Third, empathy means getting back to customers promptly and keeping them informed of progress, even if you can’t solve an issue right away. The latter is important because in many cases a customer’s anxiety can be eased if she at least knows that someone cares and is actively working on the problem.

“An agent with empathy can anticipate the needs of a customer and can help avoid customer frustration or even anger altogether,” says Chris Hamilton, senior director of product management at Oracle Service Cloud.


There is an ongoing debate about whether empathy is an inborn trait or whether it can be taught.

“I’ve often thought that maybe empathy is in the genetic code and that some people are just born with it, because there really are people who are naturally good at it,” Cavitt says.

But although it would be great to find customer service agents who are naturally empathetic, customer service consultants like Cavitt also recognize that this simply isn’t the case with everyone. Some individuals can’t be trained or aren’t willing to be trained, but Cavitt believes that most can learn to be empathetic—and Hamilton agrees.

“Empathy, or understanding what a customer is going through to help resolve a situation, can be taught to the majority of individuals,” Hamilton says.

One key is to look for extroverts who like to be with people and who like to meet different people. “These individuals are very curious about the hopes and dreams of others that they interact with,” says Ron Kaufman, chairman of Up! Your Service, a provider of customer service leadership workshops and training. “They ask questions, and they’re confident in their ability to handle customers and successfully resolve service issues.”

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