How customer empathy delivers in the contact centre.

Contact centre advisors are under growing pressure to deliver customer satisfaction. That’s when customer empathy can pay dividends. But what does delivering it involve and does it have tangible commercial benefits? Our expert panel share their insights and tips…

Empathy. The ability to share another person’s feelings and emotions as if they were your own. Or, at least, that’s the definition given by Collins Dictionary. But what does empathy mean in the contact centre environment?

Customer engagement consultant Martin Hill-Wilson says the term “empathy” has become a trendy concept in marketing, so much so that it’s in danger of meaning “everything and nothing”. To drill down to what customer empathy means to their business, he suggests contact centre executives spend time defining their own meaning.

“Come up with your own understanding and working definition of exactly what you mean by customer empathy,” he says. “For my part, it’s imagining another person’s reality and being moved to respond to their needs as a result of that. Essentially it’s about getting outside of my head and into somebody else’s space in a vivid way. It’s action-orientated because I’m moved to do something as a result.”

For Jon Bowen, customer director of Paymentshield, it’s all about connectivity.

“It’s about understanding how your customer is feeling. What’s driven that feeling and that emotion? Even if you can’t resolve the customer’s problem, it’s understanding what’s driven their contact and digging deeper than the transactional conversations that a lot of customer interactions involve,” he says. 

Tim North, head of contact centre go-to-market at Connect, makes a pertinent point that being empathic to customers isn’t “always just about just being nice”. 

“It’s about staff being empowered to know what customers want and how to deal with them. It’s difficult, though” he says.

With contact centre advisors under increasing pressure to manage customer conversations to deliver a high satisfaction rating or NPS score, the ability to connect and be empathetic is crucial. Especially as customers are now more likely to undertake transactional tasks online, meaning the queries contact centres encounter tend to be the complex ones. These can often involve emotionally charged conversations and interactions with anxious customers. Jon says the various stresses the population has endured in recent years means empathy is more important than ever.

“Establishing that emotional connection to give the customer reassurance is crucial right now and that’s why we’ve seen a big shift to focus on empathy in the contact centre space over the last 12 months or so,” he says.

Assessing the benefits

Jon says the immediate benefit of prioritising an empathetic approach in the contact centre is the emotional connection the customer feels.

“It’s that feeling that somebody is owning the problem for them, reducing their stress and leaving them reassured that what needs to be done is going to be done,” he says.

However, some businesses view empathy as a nice-to-have or add-on. So, are there any tangible commercial benefits of embedding customer empathy in a business’s communication strategy?

“How does it translate into commercial soft skill value?” asks Martin. “It makes sense that experiencing positive emotions will incline someone to engage more with a brand and that translates directly into commercial opportunity and customer value: people will stay with you longer, they tend to be more open to new offers and, if they feel sufficiently positive, they will be an advocate for your brand. These are some tangible ways that empathy kicks off a chain reaction of positive outcomes, which ultimately result in loyalty.”

It’s not just of benefit to customer retention but to employee retention too. Investing in training around empathy and active listening skills is part of developing employees.

“Encouraging an empathetic approach enriches the role of a contact centre advisor. Having that opportunity to feel like you’re the expert and able to solve an issue can add real value to the role,” Jon says. “I honestly believe that listening skills and empathy can be taught and it’s such a pertinent and transferable skill to develop.”

Tim agrees that empowering the contact centre is critical to establish authentic customer empathy. Part of this is embedding the right technology tools in the contact centre. They can provide agents with customer insights, customer journey information and next best action recommendations to help facilitate an empathetic approach.

“The technologies that allow us to identify the caller and personalise the experience through different channels, using AI, intelligent chatbots and voicebots etc, is there now and it’s really easy to use. Get it right and technology can help super-charge an agent’s performance, complementing their own life experience to relate to the customer,” says Tim.

While budgets can constrain some businesses, there are plenty of ways to get more value from existing systems and help teams connect with customers more empathetically and effectively.

Jon agrees saying self-serve technology needs to have a human element to it, integrating emotive language to deliver a personalised experience before the team deals with the more complex conversations.

“We need to help our teams achieve this by removing the noise so they can concentrate on the emotional conversation and not be hamstrung by metrics like average handling time or inflexible processes. It’s about empowerment and flexibility – allowing your team to have a personal conversation outside of your processes, if it’s right for the customer,” he says. “This is about authenticity, it’s not about a formulaic approach. You can’t script empathy.”

Find out how we can help your business connect and empathise with customers – Connect with us.