Wednesday, September 5, 2012

How to Deliver Great Customer Service: What’s Your Empathy Quotient?

Author's note:  This is an update to a blog post originally published in 2007.

How's your empathy quotient?  Your ability to empathize may be your most important ability as a member of the IT support staff.  Empathy means providing caring and personal service. defines empathy as "the intellectual identification with...the feelings, thoughts or attitudes of another."  Empathy is your ability to truly put yourself in your user's position so you can understand his/her frustration. Once we truly understand our user's frustration, fears, and aggravations, we can start the process of delivering a meaningful solution for them. Sometimes it only takes a moment to really understand where our user is coming from. Sometimes it takes several minutes of listening combined with empathetic statements such as "I understand why you feel that way." or "I'd feel that way, too, if I were in your situation."  Regardless, until you can empathize with your user, you're not ready to start the technical aspects of the support session. Remember, it may be your technical expertise that solves the problem, but it's your skill in dealing with people that produces satisfied end-users.

As a support person, you convey empathy when you listen for the hidden meaning in what a user is saying, when you acknowledge the emotion, and when you offer caring assistance.

Empathy is especially important when dealing with a user who is irritated, angry or emotional. When users are emotional, it is difficult for them to think and act rationally. This is because of the way the human brain is structured.  The amygdala is an area of the brain involved in processing emotional reactions.  It controls the fight or flight response to emotionally charged situations.  In such situations, the amygdala in essence hijacks the rest of our more rational, analytical brain and takes control.  In fact, this phenomenon is sometimes known as an amygdala hijack.

To get someone out of the grip of an amygdala hijack and pass the power over to the analytical brain takes one of three things:
  1. Intervention of a skilled listener or support professional
  2. Effort on the part of the emotional person 
  3. The passage of time
It is important to understand this as we deal with emotional, upset or angry users. Empathy is a remedy for calming an emotional person by simply and genuinely acknowledging the emotion that the user feels. Empathy is very powerful because it diffuses emotion. If you want to be able to deal rationally with an emotional user, or if you simply want to ensure that an interaction does not escalate into an emotional one, remember to use empathy. When sincerely applied, empathy works like a charm in most situations.

This video, from my YouTube channel, is about using emotional intelligence techniques to manage emotionally charged situations.

Here are some examples of empathy statements:
  • “I can hear how frustrated you are.”
  • “I can see how that would annoy you.”
  • “That’s terrible!”
  • “I understand how time-critical this is.”
  • “I would be unhappy if that happened to me, too.”
Television personality Ross Shafer really gets to the heart of the matter when he points out that people don’t really want customer service as much as they want customer empathy.  The same concept applies to end-user support incidents.  When you sincerely empathize with your user, you convey to them a sense of caring and understanding.  There’s a quote in customer service circles that says, “They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”  When a user believes that you genuinely care about their particular problem, no matter how many times you’ve heard it before, you’re well on the way to creating a satisfied end-user before you even start to solve his or her problem!

This post is an excerpt from my book The Compassionate Geek:  Mastering Customer Service for IT Professionals.

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