Empathy, the capacity to which someone can understand or feel what another may be feeling, is a powerful indicator of how successful a customer service agent will be on the job. Without empathy, customer service is pointless. Without empathy, customer service agents fail to respond in a ‘human’ way to customers and instead come off as robotic or unhelpful.
Taken from the Wikipedia page:
“Empathy is seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feelings with the heart of another. There are many definitions for empathy which encompass a broad range of emotional states. Types of empathy include cognitive empathy, emotional empathy, and somatic empathy.”
Types of empathy
Three types of empathy exist, though only two are truly applicable in business or customer service. These are the 3 types of empathy:
Emotional empathy. The capacity to use appropriate emotion in responding to another person’s mental state or actions; based on ’emotional contagion’ or having the capacity to be affected by another person’s emotional state.
Cognitive empathy. The capacity to truly understand another person’s mental state or perspective. Used interchangeably with ‘theory of mind.’
Somatic empathy. This type of empathy doesn’t typically occur in business settings and may not be applicable in customer service. It is an empathetic physical reaction to seeing situations or circumstances that cause suffering or hurt in other individuals, most likely based on mirror neuron responses.
We see that empathy makes it possible for customer service agents to not only understand the issues, frustrations, and situations customers are dealing with – it also makes them think of those experiences more as though they were “their own” instead of simply belonging to someone unrelated to them.
Being able to bring the customer’s experiences within and imagine that they are the ones dealing with the problem instead makes customer service agents more likely to treat the customer with respect and offer effective solutions instead of just mirroring emotions.
This isn’t just a psychological theory without real world application. Some of the most successful companies in the nation build their customer service philosophy on the principle of empathy.
“Patnaik claims that the real opportunity for companies doing business in the 21st Century is to create a widely held sense of empathy for customers, pointing to Nike, Harley-Davidson, and IBM as examples of “Open Empathy Organizations”. Such institutions, he claims, see new opportunities more quickly than competitors, adapt to change more easily, and create workplaces that offer employees a greater sense of mission in their jobs.” – Empathy, Wikipedia
Similar, but different from empathy
Two terms are typically used in conjunction with empathy, and sometimes (erroneously) in place of: Compassion and sympathy.
Compassion. An emotion felt when others are in need – compassion may motivate individuals to help those in need.
Sympathy. A feeling of understanding the difficulty of another’s circumstances or needs – a feeling of concern for another.
These definitions are undeniably similar to that of empathy, but perhaps the difference can best be summed up this way:
“Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes.” – Ed Yong
The key to empathy seems to be the ability to first look outward (at the customer’s perspective), then to look inward (to overcome your own perspective) in order to develop a more accurate, compassionate view of the situation at hand. This is why without empathy, customer service is truly pointless.