Empathy in Customer Care – Lose Your Fear!

Customer care (customer service, help desks, technical support, contact call center) reps,  sometimes struggle with showing empathy to angry customers. Heck, some struggle with showing empathy to any customer!

Throughout 20 years of inspiring and training professionals to understand the customer’s perspective and empathize to build customer loyalty, I have seen some who are naturally good at it, some who learn it, and others who struggle with it.

Most puzzling to me have been those whom I have seen empathizing with customers — except with angry or irate customers. If you or your customer care reps find it difficult to empathize with customers — especially angry or irate customers — is fear of emotion part of the reason?  I believe that it could be. I have met professionals (many not even in customer care) who are afraid to empathize with a colleague, a customer, or even a boss. They have said to me, “What if the person gets more emotional when I empathize?”

Moreover, recent research has taken on the subject of negative emotions and empathy. In one such study, subjects empathized more with those who showed fear than with those who showed anger. Turning Bad Emotions Into Empathy and ProSocial Behavior post reports: “While there is a huge range of human emotion, recent studies have suggested that a fearful facial expression is a more salient elicitor of prosocial behavior than are other facial expressions, such as surprise or anger.”

Empathy - Lose the Fear By:Zaaracollier

Are you more likely to show empathy to a customer who shows you their fear — credit card problems or serious technical difficulties or critical health issues — rather than their anger? Is it because their fear doesn’t frighten you but their anger does?

The issue is critical in customer service, technical support, and customer care because it affects customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. Showing empathy to customers, angry or not, builds bonds to your product, service, and brand.

Lose the fear of the customer’s anger to build your empathy skills. Here is a post to help you do exactly that Two Mindsets to Show Empathy for Irate Customers.

What else do you think blocks people’s ability to show empathy? I welcome your comments below.

©2010 Kate Nasser, CAS, Inc. Somerville, NJ. If you want to re-post or republish this post, please email info@katenasser.com. Thank you for respecting intellectual capital.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach, has a Masters in Organizational Psychology and a natural intuition about people. She delivers highly interactive workshops, info-packed webinars, and distance learning DVDs on this and many customer service topics including customer care in technical support.

11 Responses to “Empathy in Customer Care – Lose Your Fear!”

  1. skip bieber says:

    Once again Kate, a wonderful, thought provoking post!

    I never really though about handling the customer different if they are angry or irate. Then again, I typically only take the “difficult” customers or tier2/escalated issues(and customers are usually short fused by then). While I don’t usually take customer support calls, I always made time for the most difficult of customers no matter time of day or weekend. Not because of policy or expertise (or no one would talk to the customer) but because it was best interest of the company for me to resolve this customer issue right there and then – no phone transfers, no we’ll call you back Monday and never “not my job” reasons

    Now that I’ve read this, I will be more aware of difficult customers AND more importantly I think, the next time a co-worker tries to transfer a difficult customer to me, I will refer them to this column!

    Samuel/Skip Bieber
    CompTia A+, MCP/MCSA+security

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Hi Skip,
      Your philosophy of taking care of the customer is right on target. No transfers, no “not my job” baloney. Every customer getting great care is one less irate customer. That isn’t to say that customer service & technical support create all irate customers. Yet great care is both a prevention of negative incidents and building block for customer loyalty. Glad the article on “best service to irate customers” is valuable to you and your colleagues and team members.

      Thanks again for contributing …. Happy 4th of July.

  2. Simona says:

    Hello Kate,
    Interesting subject like always.
    My personal opinion is that “showing empathy” starts when you are a child.
    I think many aspects contribute to this quality, is a lot to discuss about this, if you want.
    – the people who usually care about others, have patience in listening, think that sometimes they could have the same problems like the “angry ” customers which they are dealing with, can show in a natural way empathy in different situations.
    – we can all improve “the way we show empathy”, by a number of methods. Some of these can be:
    *listening more active
    *more delicate approaches
    *more smile
    *”everything has a solution”, I think people need to hear more this sentence.

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks very much for your contribution on this empathy post. There may well be some evidence to show that empathy learned, learned as a child, is one of the better starts to this important skill and life attribute. I sometimes wonder if those that did learn it as a child are the ones I see who seem “naturally good” at tit. It is also possible to learn it as life goes on. In the end, we all benefit from those that are capable and willing to show empathy.

      Hope you will stop back to this blog and contribute to other posts in the future.
      Warmest wishes,

  3. Eric Jacques says:

    Another thought-provoking post Kate.

    Wanting to help people who are afraid but not those who are angry makes perfect sense to me. Chances are that it’s an evolutionary trait; anything that is angry is dangerous.

    It also produces either fear or anger in others, neither is conducive to helping.

    We need rationality to overcome this and empathize with people who are angry. I suggest taking a step back, a few deep breathes and remind yourself that it isn’t about you. Even though I abhor putting people on hold, in these cases, it may be warranted and extremely helpful.

    Another good way to defuse this type of situation is to ask the caller “Are you angry with me? Would you prefer dealing with someone else?” In my experience, this invariably leads the caller to calm down and think. I’ve never heard a caller answer “Yes” tot he question and it reminds them that there’s a human being on the other end of the call.


    • Kate Nasser says:

      Thanks Eric for your perspective on “how” to overcome the fear. I teach to take a minute as you say, and then picture the customer as someone who needs 911 – maybe a loved one in pain or an accident victim. If they were yelling, my guess is all would help despite the anger because the pain and fear would be visible.


  4. Barry Dalton says:

    Hey Kate,
    Another thoughtful post. What else block’s peoples’ ability to show empathy? I think it depends on the circumstance. In general, I think people resist demonstrating empathy because they feel it creates some expectation of involvement – “oh no! I just made a connection with this person. Now I’m no the hook. They’re going to expect me to do something for them”

    In customer service, I would say this is a major driver of the reluctance of front line service people to show empathy. If I show empathy, if I engage, this customer is going to expect me to do something; to take action. And, Shoot! I have no authority to help this person; to solve their problem; to eliminate the cause of their angst.

    @tedcoine posted a profound tweet this morning (what’s new?) “…I’m still surprised every time I learn that someone sees customer service as an unempowered call center.” The reality is that this is still the rule rather than the exception. The exceptions continue to get high praise because of their uniqueness. Zappos, Virgin, Wegmans, Amazon. But what if more were like that? What if more companies gave their front line service people the full authority and empowerment to do what it takes to address the customer’s issue? Give them the guidelines. And, if you have to step out of the guidelines and you think its the right thing to do. Do it. And if it screws up somebody’s day internally but solved the customers dilemma, fine. I’ve got your back and we’ll deal with the fall out and learn from it. What if that list of empowered organizations was so long we couldn’t fit them all in 140 chacters?

    Then I’m guessing you would have a lot more service people saying “I’m terribly sorry to hear that. I’m regret that this has made you angry. Here’s what I’m going to do about it”

    • Kate Nasser says:

      Exactly Barry. Fear of all types can stop people from showing empathy. Fear of emotion/anger or as you say, fear of reprisal from your boss if you “step outside” of the std guidelines. Empowerment is a great start toward enabling empathy and then the individuals must overcome their personal fear of emotion and connection.

      Thanks for the comment!!

  5. Barry Dalton says:

    By the way, check out this story just yesterday on NPR. All about customer service empathy, but nothing about empowerment.



  6. Ellen Weber says:

    Spoken like a pro – thanks Kate!

    Great discussion here too. I especially value the hope caught up in this post that shows one can make a progression from lack of empathy to developing a rich supply.

    We use brain based strategies for that purpose, that impact interpersonal intelligences, draw from mirror neurons, and practice tactics that literally rewire the brain for more of what you do in any day. It’s amazing to see the brain’s plasticity in areas we thought were fixed intelligence that could not be “fixed” as adults.

    Part of the problem with people who lack empathy, is an accompanying low intrapersonal intelligence, which prevents them from seeing how this weakness hold them back and pours toxins into an entire community. It’s also fun to see leaders move past that barrier:-) What do you think?

    • Kate Nasser says:

      First off, many thanks for sharing some of the more scientific angles of empathy. Great contribution for all to read.
      Secondly, I have always believed that people can learn empathy — I teach it in my customer care workshops to IT techies who many believe can’t learn it. Hogwash. Many techies are smart, caring, dedicated pro’s who are *very capable of learning anything.

      Personally, I would love to learn more about your “brain re-wiring” insights. Very interesting.
      Let’s think about what we might do together…

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