Training Contact Center Agents to Display Empathy: Nature or Nurture?

25 April, 2019



The advent of artificial intelligence, chatbots, and automation is changing the customer service landscape. Through them, people can get their basic business needs taken care of without ever speaking to a human.

More complex, higher order interactions, however, still require contact center agents, and the customer expects more of the agent’s skill set as a result. When a customer feels they have been wronged, even if a “robot” can fix the problem, they often just want someone to hear them out and feel their frustration.

One vital aspect of that skill set, which has yet to be replicated by machine learning, is the ability to express empathy — understanding and sharing the feelings of others. It is still the sole purview of humans and a necessary component of any customer interaction.

The Empathy Challenge

Part of the challenge I face as Training Director is teaching agents how to show empathy. The workforce is getting younger and their natural ability to interact verbally with others is less developed than other generations because everyone communicates now through mobile devices.

When someone is unfriendly, makes us angry, or we sense emotion or conflict, we simply dismiss them with an emoticon, unfriend or block them. That means actually dealing with conflict — and expressing empathy in the process — does not come naturally.

Even though, today, people’s inherent ability to express empathy may be less, it can be nurtured, and much of our training focuses on helping agents learn to identify with the customer’s feelings and emotions.

Two Aspects of Customer Interaction

Every interaction with customers, whether through chat, email, or phone, has two aspects: the “business need” and “human need.” Successful agents know how to balance both to bring about a satisfactory resolution for the customer.

The business need is what prompts the person to make contact, but if agents go straight to the business side — fixing the problem without first acknowledging the customer’s human need (the right to  express anger, frustration,  remorse or you fill in the emotion) — the interaction won’t go as well as it should.

People first need to KNOW that we CARE about them as humans before they CARE what we KNOW about the problem. It’s imperative that we make a human connection… every time, which is why we must always start (and end) with the human need.

Benefits of Expressing Empathy

The ability to express empathy benefits the agent-customer interaction in at least three ways:

Delivers a positive customer experience

Customers will remember and appreciate agents who demonstrate an understanding of their problem. In turn, it leads to a more positive experience and impression of the company the agent represents.

Diffuses volatile phone calls

The agent’s ability to express genuine empathy to emotional callers is often enough to diffuse a volatile situation and ease tensions. The customer feels validated: they have been listened to, and their concerns were taken seriously.

Nothing makes an agent’s day better than when a customer apologizes for their initial rude behavior and thanks them for taking care of their issue. And that motivates the agent to get on to the next call.

Builds customer loyalty

Customers who have positive interactions with agents will likely want to continue doing business with the company. This fact only magnifies the importance of the agent’s role — an empathetic agent can be the difference between a person abandoning a brand or becoming a long-term, loyal customer.

How We Train Agents on Empathy

With all that’s at stake, it’s easy to understand why we place such emphasis on training our agents to express empathy. We do so using five techniques:

1. Put a human face on the interaction

We start by helping agents understand that the person on the other end of the line is a human being, too.

It’s easy for customers to make judgments about agents in the first few seconds of the call or chat — and the same is true of agents regarding customers. It’s only human nature.

We teach our agents not to make judgments but, instead, listen to the issue, try to put a human face to the person, and see the matter from their perspective. (What if this was your mom or your brother? How would you want them to be treated?)

2. Focus on trigger words

The words agents use can color the customer’s perception and impede their willingness to listen to and accept the agent’s recommendations. To offset any negative sentiment, we spend time talking about trigger words, how and why to avoid them, and how to make the right word choices instead.

To reinforce this aspect of training, we give each agent a list of words they should avoid and those they should use, in the event they need a reminder.  (e.g., Replace “I need you to…” or “You must...” with phrases like “It would be helpful if you could…” or “Here’s something you might want to try.”)

3. Practice reflective listening

A third technique, reflective listening, teaches agents to echo back to the customer what the agent understood the person said.  (e.g., “It sounds like you’re saying…” or “What I hear you saying is…”)

It’s a way to confirm and prioritize the problem and to show interest in what the customer is saying.

Basically, if we expect the customer to listen to us when we present a solution, we must actively listen to the customer to maintain their trust.

4. Offer assurance statements

Assurance statements convey that we understand the problem and are taking steps to resolve it to the customer’s satisfaction.  (e.g., “Thank you for letting me know. I can take care of that right now.” “I’ll be glad to help you with that.” “I’m happy to check on that for you.”)

We then follow that with a statement that lets the customer know what steps will be taken to address the concern, so they know they are dealing with a pro.

5. Use empathy when you hear emotion.

We must put ourselves in the customer’s shoes and accept their right to feel the way they do, regardless of whether we agree with them or not. There is nothing more sensitive than an emotional customer, and every word we use can make or break our success.

When there is emotion, we can’t jump right to solving the business need without first acknowledging the human need, i.e., their feelings.

We practice using phrases like “I can only imagine how frustrating this has been for you.” “If that happened to me, I would feel the same way.” “I can understand how disappointed you must be.” We also teach them to avoid phrases that could trigger more emotion, like “I completely understand how you feel.” (because there is no way we ever will).

In Conclusion

Empathy is one of the most important skills an agent can learn and knowing when and how to use empathy can make all the difference in an agent’s job satisfaction.

Those who know how to balance the business need with the human need by showing empathy can leave customers feeling satisfied, improve the customer experience, and engender long-term loyalty and trust. That’s good for the customer, the agent, the client, and our company.

The most successful agent-customer interactions begin and end with a focus on human needs. Once we’ve made that connection, addressing the business need is the easy part.