Empathy and Customer Support: Finding the Right Balance
Empathy is a powerful way to build trust, but leaning in too far can also backfire. Something I’ve come to wonder after 3.5 years at Buffer as a Customer Advocate is how can we use empathy effectively to enhance the customer support experience?
“The action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner” —Merriam-webster.com
When sitting down to write this article, I struggled with how to start talking about empathy. I originally wanted to start along the lines of “Empathy is a powerful tool”, but felt like this gave the impression that we should fake empathy to get what we want; wielding it as a tool to be used when needed.
Maybe a better way to phrase it is that empathy is an incredibly powerful part of the customer service toolkit. It can help us get closer to the customer’s experience and more fully understand what they need from us. This will help them leave this interaction feeling cared for and help us, as support professionals, feel rewarded.
The power of empathy
“I was literally moved with how much patience and kindness I was treated. And that has been consistently done, whenever I’ve had a query or problem. I so appreciate that. Especially as I’m really out of my depth with digital technology which makes me feel rather vulnerable and are the mercy of those who know better, it is especially appreciated. Your service never lacks humanity and compassion and in an age where so much is regulated by computer programs, this stands out in a brightly shining light.” —Customer feedback (February 2022)
Empathy has incredible power in the customer support experience. It has the power to make the customer feel heard,diffuse a customer’s anger, and de-escalate a tense situation. When a customer writes in with a grievance and we respond with genuine empathy, it can communicate several things to the customer:
Validation that they are encountering a true problem;
Our understanding that the problem is important to them;
Acknowledgment that their problem is now important to us; and
News that we want to resolve the problem with them.
As a customer support professional, if we feel empathy for the customer who is writing in, we will want to work harder to help them. It may even inspire us to think of creative workarounds for issues that are beyond our control. If we can successfully resolve the issue for the customer, there is also the added bonus of job satisfaction. Our brain rewards us for helping others.
Too much empathy can backfire
“Your response is obnoxious.” —Customer feedback (February 2021)
When I first joined the customer support team at Buffer, we viewed empathy as one of the key aspects of any customer support experience. In fact, during ticket reviews, we were measured based on three things: Accuracy, Clarity and Empathy (this was later changed to Awareness, Clarity and Empowerment). Over time though, we began to recognize that too much empathy, or prioritizing empathy over all else, was also not ideal.
While customers do want to feel heard, their number one goal is to have their problem solved. For some customers, an empathetic response, without a clear understanding of the actions being taken, irritates them and makes them feel worse about the situation and interaction. What customers need from us are solutions and not a shoulder to cry on.
Let’s do a little thought exercise to see this in action — you work at an electronics store and a customer comes in with a broken television that they recently bought from you. Aside from common courtesy, they are not looking for you to spend the first five minutes of their time together explaining how well you understand the frustration they must’ve experienced throughout their ordeal. They aren’t even looking for you to provide a refund for the device. Instead, they want their television to work; they need to understand that you’re taking action. (Thank you, Ross, for this fun illustration!)
Expressing too much empathy can seem disingenuous even if our response comes from a genuine place. Likewise, in instances where we are empathetic but can’t provide a solution for the customer, empathy itself can cause a customer to feel even angrier.
Too much empathy can adversely impact support agents
“It can be hard working with dissatisfied customers. Some matters are very complex and require a lot of troubleshooting, which is emotionally and mentally draining.” —Buffer Customer Advocate
Too much empathy can also be harmful to our well-being. If we are too empathetic, we risk, to paraphrase a colleague of mine, “joining them in the pit of their despair, rather than helping them out of it” (Thank you for this nugget, Dave!). Being too empathetic in customer support, where we are inundated daily with numerous issues and grievances from different customers, can also lead to burnout.
Finding the right balance
So far, I have said:
Empathy = Good
Too much empathy = Bad
How do we find the balance? There is no perfect answer, but, for me, there are generally three rules I follow when working with customers.
(1) Any empathy I express must be genuine
Customer support advocates, at least within Buffer, already have pretty high levels of empathy, so feeling empathy for a customer would usually come naturally. As a human, living in the modern world, I myself have oftentimes felt incredibly frustrated with technology, different companies, or customer support experiences. Because of those experiences, I can relate to and empathize with most customers that reach out to us.
In instances when I am not naturally empathizing with the customer, I find it useful to really try and put myself in the customer’s shoes. I might make up a story in my mind to help — like imagining that the customer had been reprimanded by their boss for an error that might be related to the issue they are facing with Buffer. I might try and imagine I am a different person feeling the way the customer is feeling, even though I myself would not feel that way in the same situation. It takes a little bit more effort, but it makes the interaction more genuine and it can positively impact the result of the conversation.
(2) I will default to action
While empathy is part of our toolkit, our primary tool is “action.” Our job is to help customers fix their issues: first to identify what the issue is and then to look for a solution or a next step. This is the primary objective of every interaction and without action at the forefront, no amount of empathy will suffice.
(3) Maintain healthy boundaries
There are two boundaries I like to keep in mind: those of the customer, and my own. To me, protecting a customer’s boundary means not over-apologizing. While we might feel incredibly bad for the customer, our job is to find solutions and to empower and uplift our customers. Generally speaking, we can usually avoid over-apologizing if we are genuine and solution-driven.
Protecting my own boundaries means knowing when to redirect or end a conversation. There may be instances where I don’t know how to solve a customer’s issue. A healthy boundary would be knowing when to escalate the conversation to another tier of support.
There may be other instances where a conversation becomes too much to cope with and I can then lean into Buffer’s Teammate Protection Pledge and hand the conversation off to another teammate or a team lead. This is particularly important when it comes to threatening and abusive behavior that would risk my own psychological well-being.
There may be times when you reach an impasse with the customer. Where no solution fits the customer’s needs and no reply will deescalate the conversation — where any response makes the customer angrier. When further discussion doesn’t feel productive, I end the conversation knowing I have done the best I possibly can for them.
(4) Revisit uplifting conversations
For every wearing conversation encountered, there are likely one or more uplifting conversations that have come our way. There are even more positive conversations to explore when looking across the whole team, so making an effort to celebrate and highlight these can be incredibly rewarding and uplifting.
At Buffer, we share particularly touching messages publicly with our team on Slack (with the customer’s identity redacted). Our teammate, Cheryl, also publishes a monthly Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) Report to our team, where she highlights all of the positive feedback we’ve received. Something like this can equalize our natural human focus on improvement.
Balance is hard
The above are my personal opinions on empathy’s role in the customer service experience. It is also my current “ideal.” Not only will my opinions on this change over time, but how closely I stick with my “ideal” will change with every interaction. Finding balance is hard and every customer is different. Our moods on different days and at different times also vary. The important thing is knowing that we’re doing our best.
If you read all the way to the end of this article, it means you already care enough about your craft to invest time reading more opinions on it.