Empathy Statements Aren’t Enough

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The Canadian government might confiscate my passport for this one, but I’m gonna say it anyway: Stop telling customers you’re sorry.

Take a look at any contact center’s quality monitoring scorecard and you’ll likely find a criterion for scoring agent empathy. And how do they measure that? By having agents recite scripted empathy statements like “I’m so sorry you’re experiencing that! I would also feel frustrated if I were in your shoes!” or “I’m so sorry to hear that! I wouldn’t have liked that either!” These are verbatim empathy statements I’ve received as a customer, if you were wondering.

Quality teams tend to take an all-or-nothing approach to scoring empathy. If a customer articulates an issue, the agent should be launching into their empathy statement. But let’s be realistic here. How many customers are calling in without an issue? Is empathy really required on every call?

The contact center approach to empathy frustrates me for two reasons:

  1. It’s insincere. And before you get any ideas, I am not placing any blame on the agent. Their apologies sound scripted because they are scripted. The agent doesn’t know me. They hear hundreds of issues per day. It would be absolutely ridiculous to expect an agent to feel some kind of genuine empathy with every customer issue, big and small.
  2. “Sorry” doesn’t fix my problem. If I had to choose between a deeply empathetic and apologetic agent who is powerless to solve my problem or an apathetic agent who takes charge and gets things done, I would choose the latter every day of the week.

Quick story time: I recently had an issue with my boarding pass when traveling for work. Somehow I ended up IDed as “Christinatina McAllister,” which, while kind of funny, is obviously not my name. On my way to the airport, I spoke with a rep from the airline to resolve this. The agent, who was both very nice and very sorry, told me there was absolutely nothing they could do to help. I got the same response when I chatted with the partner airline. Once I got to the airport, I located a rep and re-re-explained the issue. I was likely visibly exasperated, but for the first time that day, I did not receive a canned apology. What I did receive was the feeling of relief that my issue was being taken care of by someone empowered to solve my problem.

Now I am not saying you should aim to build a team of entirely apathetic problem solvers. But we need to be honest with ourselves about what empathy can and can’t do. It can help us feel heard, valued, understood—but it can’t solve our problems. It can’t change the fact that our internet is down or that our boarding pass says Christinatina and our flight is in one hour.

It’s time to ditch the hollow apologies and rethink empathy in customer service. We need to give agents the tools and resources they need to take ownership of the resolution and trust them to use their judgment for when empathy is appropriate (and when it’s not).

Remember: Your customers aren’t calling into the contact center to check out the IVR’s new menu options. They’re calling because they have an issue, and they need someone to take charge and fix it. Empower your agents to be problem solvers, not just apologizers. Your customers deserve more than just empathy on demand. 

Christina McAllister is senior analyst, Forrester Research, covering customer service and contact center technology, strategy, and operations.

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