For successful communication, empathy is key.
It helps us to understand and connect with the feelings and experiences of others, enabling us to see things from someone else’s perspective.
Empathy is different to sympathy, which means feeling emotion for someone, typically in a difficult situation, and seeking to console them.
When someone explains their problem, for example, sympathising would be to say, “I’m sorry you’re experiencing this, I hope you can resolve it.” But through empathising with them, putting ourselves in their shoes, we might identify a solution and help them work through it.
How does empathy work in the digital age?
The current situation has flipped our understanding of customer engagement. Meeting face to face to speak, reading each other’s body language, is not an option in most cases now, so we use the available digital tools and platforms to communicate and stay in touch.
As more and more interaction moves online, and this has accelerated during the past 12 months, we increasingly lose the ability to be in the same place as those we interact with. Instead, we must “read” them through a text, screen, or phone line.
When it comes to customer service, use of these channels is not a recent phenomenon. Customer service agents have served customers this way since the enabling technology arrived. Most one to one support is done through a call or chat, so agents have come to understand how best to empathise through the medium chosen. Today, however, there is a greater need for empathy as customers use self-service and digital channels before seeking agent assistance for any that don’t achieve what they looked for.
Although agents can’t see the customers they talk to or chat with, they can pick up how they’re feeling from other cues – voice tone and intonation, choice of language, and even written style. If capitalising words in a chat, for example, this indicates the customer is stressed and upset. Identifying this, the agent would use calming, clarifying statements and questions to reduce the heightened emotion. Likewise, a customer sending smiling or positive emojis gives the agent opportunity to mirror this and integrate similar emojis in their responses.
We may express empathy differently in digital channels, but it’s still empathy.
A final thought
As individuals, we each have different levels of natural empathy. However, just as with other areas of emotional intelligence, we can learn and become more skilled. Companies looking to engage with customers and provide better customer service must consider improving this training and ensure that agents are fully equipped to deliver what they need.