Customer empathy is more than a buzzword. It’s a critical differentiator in an increasingly competitive business landscape as well as an essential tool for people in customer-facing roles. Any company that’s committed to customer-centricity should practice customer empathy consistently—the results will speak for themselves.
What is customer empathy?
Customer empathy is the ability to see things from the customer’s perspective. Empathy in customer service means that you can put yourself in buyers’ shoes and understand their pain points. As a business, it is the ability to understand what a consumer experiences when they use your products or services.
Whether a customer’s experience is good, bad, or somewhere in between, empathy helps build trust and an emotional connection between that customer and the company. It can help a support agent deal with an angry customer, for example. But empathy isn’t just important for customer-facing jobs or when customer emotions run high. Rather, practicing customer empathy is necessary for all roles across an organization.
Being truly customer-centric means encouraging everyone in the company, from product managers to content marketers, to think about everything they do from a consumer’s point of view. Building customer empathy throughout a business can lead to better products, a superior customer experience, and greater customer satisfaction.
Why empathy is important in customer service
Customer empathy can help define a company’s products or services and its approach to marketing, training, or industry leadership. This can be a good thing. The products or services a company provides must effectively solve customers’ problems—otherwise, customers will leave for competitors who understand them better (in other words, competitors who have more empathy for the customer experience).
The line is also blurred between what customers want transactionally and what they expect as human beings in a big, confusing world. Companies are now expected to act as agents of change.
More and more consumers—especially Millennials and Zoomers—want to funnel their dollars into socially responsible companies. And according to McKinsey, “leading organizations are reorienting their customer-experience efforts to meet their customers’ primary needs, such as safety, security, and everyday convenience.” Through empathy, businesses are attempting to build a foundation for long-term emotional connections with their customers.
Leading organizations are reorienting their customer-experience efforts to meet their customers’ primary needs, such as safety, security, and everyday convenience.
Both indicate that empathy at large—for the environment, for a diverse customer base, and for the people within a company’s own walls—is another business imperative.
Customer support is often the first team we think of when customer empathy comes up. Empathy can be used to improve many stressful situations, for example:
- Navigating a confusing phone tree in the wake of an emergency room visit or a stolen credit card
- Clicking through an online help center that provides little in the way of help
- Standing among delayed passengers at an airport gate, refreshing the airline app for updates, and demanding answers from harried staff
We all know these experiences, having lived through them or similar ones as consumers. But even the best training and technology can’t prevent these too-familiar situations. This is where customer empathy comes into play.
The mere act of acknowledging that we’ve had comparable experiences is the first step in cultivating a sense of customer empathy. Remembering what it is like in those moments helps a customer service representative see problems as opportunities to repair the customer relationship in both the short- and long-term.
The mere act of acknowledging that we’ve had comparable experiences is the first step in cultivating a sense of customer empathy.
Many of the most important customer service skills that managers look for are also empathy-building skills. These soft skills are essential for support teams to deliver top-notch customer experiences.
Tips for building customer empathy
We’ve heard the stories of companies going above and beyond to show customer appreciation. A New Hampshire arcade moved a pinball machine outside so a longtime customer with a heart condition could play without risking exposure to COVID-19. Trader Joe’s employees sang and danced to calm a crying toddler in the checkout line.
While those stories are heartwarming, customer empathy ultimately comes down to the actions a company takes every day to ensure each customer feels heard, understood, and valued. Here are a few ways to build customer empathy.
- Make support easy to reach
- Provide fast resolutions
- Act on customer feedback
- Build relationships through personalization
- Support causes that customers care about
- Focus on the human touch
- Provide empathy training
- Invest in the employee experience
1. Make support easy to reach
Customers shouldn’t have to climb a ladder to reach support. A company can show empathy for customers by making it convenient for them to get help over the channels of their choice. According to the Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report, 40 percent of customers want to connect with brands over their preferred channels. And 93 percent will spend more with companies that offer their preferred option to reach customer service.
Our report also found that customers are increasingly turning to social messaging apps when they connect with companies. Inquiries over WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, and regional favorites like WeChat jumped 36 percent last year—higher than any other channel.
2. Provide fast resolutions
It’s not empathic to make customers wait longer than expected to get help, especially with 73 percent of customers reporting that quick resolutions are the number-one indicator of a good customer service experience.
A knowledge base or help center is one way to ensure customers can find immediate answers to simple questions, even outside of normal business hours. Similarly, a chatbot can help agents by resolving repetitive, basic queries and capturing preliminary customer information, such as order number or location.
3. Act on customer feedback
The best way to understand your customers’ needs? Ask them.
Listen to your customers—it’s something a lot of companies say, but not so many of them do. Using customer feedback forms and surveys to gather feedback can go a long way toward understanding your audience’s perspective, identifying changes in customer expectations, and finding ways to improve your product or service.
4. Build relationships through personalization
Relationships are critical to building empathy. When a customer has to repeat the same information over and over again—such as their contact information, account type, or previous support issue—it’s a frustrating experience for both the customer and the agent. When agents have all the details they need at their fingertips, they can anticipate customers’ needs and personalize each experience.
Personalization in customer service matters more than ever before: 68 percent of consumers expect all experiences to be personalized, and over 90 percent are likely to spend more money with companies that provide personalization.
5. Support causes your customers care about
Customers want fast and convenient service. But they also want to do business with companies that support important causes.
Fifty-four percent of consumers prefer to buy from businesses that prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion in their communities and workplaces. Additionally, 73 percent of customers believe companies must act for the good of the planet and society, and 77 percent expect brands to show support for people in times of crisis.
With the growing importance of corporate social responsibility, companies must adapt to the times and put their money where their mouth is.
6. Focus on the human touch
Believe it or not, technology can help create empathetic customer experiences, particularly when it comes to speed and personalization. But this is only possible when a company balances the power of tech with the power of the human touch.
For example, customers believe chatbots are useful for getting fast answers to basic questions, especially when agents are off the clock. Chatbots are indeed helpful, and they aren’t going anywhere—in fact, Business Insider predicts the chatbot market will grow to $9.4 billion by 2024. But consumers find chatbots frustrating when there isn’t an easy way to speak with a human, and they generally prefer interacting with a real person for complex and urgent issues.
The key is to build chatbots that can recognize when to escalate issues to live agents and can do so seamlessly. Companies should always give customers the option to get in touch with a human, too.
7. Provide empathy training
Forty-nine percent of customers want to talk to empathetic agents. It helps to hire agents who can already put themselves in buyers’ shoes, but empathy training should also be part of your customer service team training.
Research shows that empathy in customer service has positive effects, even when an agent can’t fully answer a question or resolve an issue. In a recent My Customer survey, only 16 percent of respondents were satisfied with the service they received from an agent who answered their question but lacked empathy. Meanwhile, 60 percent said they were satisfied with the support they received from an empathetic agent who wasn’t able to find a solution to their problem.
8. Invest in the employee experience
According to ServiceNow’s Employee Experience Imperative report, “creating an employee experience that manifests a culture of empathy...is critical to driving empathetic customer service and outstanding customer satisfaction.” The report also states that 77 percent of employees with a positive workplace experience “are personally invested in doing great work for their company and its customers.”
Essentially, when employees are happy, they want to make sure customers are, too. Sam Goff, former director of guest services at Magnolia, describes the crucial role support agents play in creating a positive brand experience. Aside from the traditional CX metrics, the team is held to one core tenet to define success: Get the story.
Magnolia’s “get the story” approach reminds us that there are two parties in the equation: the customers seeking assistance or an understanding ear, and the employees who must be empowered to make that experience happen. That’s why having empathy for your agents and creating the best possible experience for them is a mark of the next-generation call center.
Agents won’t be able to show empathy for customers unless the company shows empathy for them. In other words, a great employee experience leads to a great customer experience. Try these tips to show empathy for the folks on the front lines:
- Encourage agents to put a “busy now, please come back later” sign on their desks (or if they’re working remotely, as their Slack status). This establishes time boundaries, so colleagues won’t approach or distract them when they’re trying to focus or taking a well-deserved break. And, because agents are often so willing to drop everything and help with drive-by consults, it builds self-care time into their day.
- Leverage the power of storytelling. For example, KinderCare shares employee stories, giving team members the opportunity to talk about the aspects and benefits of the job that matter most to them. This approach helps frontline workers feel connected to and included in the business.
- Listen to your team. Employees who feel their voice is heard in the workplace are 4.6 times more likely to do their best work. Encourage your agents to provide honest, constructive feedback in one-on-one meetings or in anonymous surveys. Acting on their ideas and acknowledging their concerns will help them believe they’re making a difference.
Empathy statements for customer service
Empathy statements are one way for support agents and associates to build trust with consumers.
Communicating with empathy helps inform and calm customers, which is especially important in challenging times. For instance, during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Edelman’s Trust Barometer report found that 83 percent of people expected brands to “issue public statements expressing empathy and support.”
Empathetic statements demonstrate that:
- The support agent understands the problem and what the customer might be thinking and feeling as a result.
- The agent is willing and able to help the customer reach a resolution.
Here are some examples of empathy statements:
- “I’m sorry you’ve experienced this.”
- “This has happened to me, too.”
- “That’s so frustrating.”
- “I’m here and ready to help.”
There are many ways to personalize your empathy statements. For example, an agent for a meal-kit company might mention how many meals the customer received and thank them for being a new customer or for being a loyal customer.
Below is an actual empathy statement from a meal subscription company. It did the trick by affirming the customer’s frustration and offering to dive in and help.
I am so sorry to hear your Box has not yet arrived! That would be incredibly frustrating and disappointing, and I deeply apologize for this. It would be my pleasure to assist you today!
The takeaways from this experience: Don’t mess with people’s dinner, and don’t forget to empathize.
That’s customer empathy as a solution. Now, let’s think about customer empathy as a feature of a team and a company.
Customer empathy examples
Modern mission statements or company stories often explain what didn’t exist before—be it in software or baby food—and how the founders took matters into their own hands to fill the gap or solve the problem. Learn more from founders and CEOs whose entire business plans include a heavy helping of customer empathy.
Hatch founder and CEO Ariane Goldman wanted new and expectant mothers to feel beautiful and sexy. As a mom herself, she was all too familiar with the frumpy maternity clothes often found in stores, and she was tired of it. So, she started crafting chic, elevated clothing that women could wear before, during, and after pregnancy. At the 2020 National Retail Federation Big Show, Goldman explained that she was driven by her passion to create a support structure around the entire pregnancy experience.
Allbirds, a company that makes sustainable shoes and clothing, recently went all-in on supporting a cause that its customers also felt strongly about: helping healthcare workers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Through its “We’re Better Together” campaign, the company introduced a buy-one-give-one program, which offered consumers a way to give back to the healthcare community. Customers could buy a pair of Allbirds’ popular Wool Runners for $60 (they normally cost $95) and donate a second pair to a medical worker. Allbirds donated shoes directly as well.
The campaign enabled Allbirds to not only demonstrate its customer-aligned values but also to get consumers actively involved in the charitable mission.
Bath, body, and haircare company Lush knows its customers care deeply about how the products they buy are created. So, the company released a series of "How It’s Made" videos to give consumers a behind-the-scenes look at how its products are sourced and manufactured.
Lush’s transparency is a great example of how to build customer trust through authenticity and empathy.
Zalando understood that many of its customers were struggling with isolation and loneliness during the height of the pandemic. To demonstrate empathy, the shoe and fashion store launched its “We Will Hug Again” campaign. It offered hope during a challenging time and reassured customers that things would get better someday.
Through this campaign, Zalando empathetically and effectively used the best symbol of human connection and solidarity that exists: a hug.
Understanding the power of customer empathy
Everyone wants to be understood and heard, especially in times of uncertainty. Making customer empathy a key component of your customer service will help create positive experiences and build trust in your brand.
Acknowledge the fact that your customers might be going through difficult times, and instill this notion in your agents to establish a foundation for empathetic interactions. As a company, you have the ability and opportunity to brighten up someone’s day by treating them with compassion and respect. Understanding the impact of customer empathy will set you apart from the competition, strengthen your connections with customers, and ultimately boost your bottom line.