Take First Place with Empathy in Customer Service

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

– Maya Angelou

For years customer experience has been a buzzword and focus area amongst customer service professionals and for good reason. The customer experience is a well traversed area of customer service, but while a lot of attention has been on the technological opportunities, journey mapping and meeting the customers across channels, less has been on the human side of the equation. How do you actually ensure that your agents are connecting with your customers on a human level?

To really be able to go that extra mile for our customers we should actually stop thinking of them only as customers, and explore the human side. This way of thinking enables us to connect with our customers on a deeper level, which will create a more valuable, loyal and lasting relationship.

In this article I explore the value of providing human-to-human experiences and why empathy is paramount in providing exceptional experiences for your customers.

Why is empathy important in business?

According to the Oxford dictionary empathy is ‘the ability to understand and share the feelings of others’, but how does this relate to your business you might ask?

For centuries empathy and business were not associated. In a traditional capitalistic view of business there’s no place for emotions. Well, times have certainly changed! As it turns out

70% of buying experiences are based on how the customer feels they are being treated.

Both McKinsey and Touch Agency have been credited with that one and for the life of me, I can’t figure out who posted it originally, so I’ll just have to credit both of them.

And it’s not just buying experiences: customers who have positive experiences will typically spend more, stay loyal and talk more about the business. Many businesses are getting a lot better at the functional basis of customer experience, like streamlining the onboarding process, answering enquiries in a timely and correct manner in several channels, or providing self-help resources. But when everyone is doing it, you’ll need that little extra to set you apart from the rest.

The most unique and unforgettable way to differentiate yourself is no longer focused on your product or service, but rather on how you make your customers feel. If you manage to promote positive emotions in your customers you’re already well-positioned to win the race.

In theory it’s pretty simple: Customer experience is emotions. If you want to provide first-rate customer experiences, you’ll have to understand how your experiences make your customers feel. If your goal is to have loyal customers and build brand relationships, the keyword to achieve that is empathy.

Customer experience psychology 101

Before we dive deeper into the importance of using empathy and how to promote it in your organization, let’s take a short journey into the mind of the customer, courtesy of Brand Embassy. When we’re talking customer experience there are six core emotions worth paying attention to – three positive and three negative. These sets of emotions comprise the emotional journey a customer can have when interacting with your business.

Positive emotions:

  • Surprise
  • Happiness
  • Gratitude

Negative emotions:

  • Anger
  • Frustration
  • Disappointment

The power of positive emotions

In relation to positive emotions the first thing the customer will experience is surprise. This happens when you manage to go above-and-beyond what he or she expects.

Once suprise wears off the feeling turns to one of happiness. This is important both in short and long term, as it’s the first step of building a positive relation with your business. The final level of emotional satisfaction is gratitude. When a customer realizes that they’re happy because of actions you took, the feeling will settle into one of gratitude. And that feeling is the basis of trust and becomes a positive, long-term association with your business as a whole, and not just a single customer service interaction.

A customer who has positive associations with your business is more likely to become a brand advocate, spend more over the long-term, and help attract new customers through word of mouth.

The power of negative emotions

Anger is the first emotion a customer will feel if you fail to deliver the expected. There’s still an opportunity to turn the situation around as they’re still emotionally connected to your business and haven’t given up on you yet.

However, if not addressed, anger will usually lead the customer to feeling frustrated about you. This is not good, as the customer will often look for ways to relieve the frustration – usually by finding other ways to fulfill their need, e.g. going to a competitor or venting their frustration on social media/review sites.

The final negative emotion is disappointment. This is bad, as it’s actually one of the longest lasting human emotions, and it’s now extremely difficult to turn the situation around. They have now formed a long-lasting negative perception of your business.

Once a customer have formed a negative perception of your business, you should already be considering whether the customer is on the way out of the door. Those customers are most unlikely to recommend you, will usually voice their disappointment and dissuade their network from doing business with you in the future.

The bottom line is that we humans generally make decisions based on emotions, not logic. Typically, decisions and actions that generate positive emotions are more likely to be repeated. Furthermore, emotions generated by decisions made in the present remain relevant going forward, both negative and positive, and affects future decisionmaking.

In short, the way customers feel is of the utmost importance, not just in the moment, but in the entire customer lifecycle.

Let’s get emotional

We’ve established the importance of emotions, and why it’s so deeply rooted to customer experience. However, emotional management, for a lack of a better term, is still somewhat of a fluffy concept, and it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly how you can become more aware of your customers emotions, and better at affecting them in a positive direction. So how do you appeal to the emotions of your customers and ensure that they form positive experiences with you?

The answer is empathy.

That takes a bit more explanation, so we better get going. In my experience, there are three useful ways of promoting empathic behaviour in your organization.

Stop the obsession with KPIs

Particularly those who don’t add any customer value. We’re all working under accountability and need to provide measurable results, especially when we’re evaluating the performance of our call centers and agents. But when we’re speaking of empathy and customer experience, less might actually be more.

My beef is with KPIs that measure performance in non-productive, non-constructive ways. The big offender is service level (a percentage of total contacts you answer within a certain timeframe). The reason being that agents are sometimes forced to provide service of lower quality in order to meet the KPIs, simply because they have to hurry. If agents are measured on how many customer enquries they answer in the shortest amount of time, and they feel their jobs depend on it, you’re actually creating incentives for them to cut corners. Creating a good customer experience typically takes more time than just creating average experiences.

If you’re obsessed with providing great customer service, instead rigorously measure satisfaction, collect customer feedback (and act on it!), and make sure you answer all of your customers. Finally, give your agents some room to maneuver.

Empower your agents

I’ve written a more comprehensive post on this subject, so in this one, I’ll keep it brief. Empowering your agents means creating working conditions that allow agents to focus on the customer. In short, you have to make sure that your agents have all the information they need and that they’re vested with authority to make decisions on their own. Finally, if they come across a situation in which they would overstep their bounds to satisfy the customer, you need to make sure that somebody’s available to help and that they know exactly what to do.

The customer is always right

The last area where you can make a difference for your customers is not as concrete as the two areas above. For quite some time we’ve heard that ‘the customers is always right’ – I’m not going to argue against the relevance of that saying, but when we’re talking customer experiences, I would modify it a bit:

The customer always has a right to be understood.

This implies a deeper focus on understanding and addressing the customer’s need and desires, and not just providing a service. Let’s call it ‘customer intimacy’, and in my experience, there are significant advantages to gain, if addressed and managed properly.

Being intimate with the customer can seem superficial and somewhat of a another feel-good mumbo jumbo phrase, but in reality it’s actually an extremely useful way of thinking of and cultivating the relationship with your customers. Think of it this way; how would you approach and provide service if the customer was your grandmother? Would you be more empathic and patient? I believe that most people would go that extra mile to ensure a proper customer experience.

So how do you cultivate that kind of culture? You’ll get a long way by stopping the obsession with irrelevant KPIs and by empowering your agents, but taking empathy into consideration when hiring can be quite beneficial as well. Being empathic can be difficult to learn, and therefore some hire employees based on behaviour as skills can always be trained.

Empathy is the key to unlocking your market

With the rise of AI and automation the human aspect of customer service, and its impact on the customer experience, must not be dismissed. In fact, it might even set you apart.

The ability to acknowledge and provide empathetic customer experiences is, and will continue to be, a huge differentiation opportunity for businesses. Furthermore, so many studies now confirm that it’s also very good business and can be the difference between winning and losing the race of customers’ favor.

In the end, all of us want to feel acknowledged and special, and the winner of the race will be the business that manage to instill that feeling in us.


Tue Søttrup

Tue Søttrup

Tue brings over 20 years of experience in customer service to his role as VP CX Excellence at Dixa.

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