Empathy is our ability to understand and relate to the feelings of others
Empathy is understanding another’s pain or circumstances, but it does not require us to actually feel their pain or be in their situation. It is an understanding of what another feels born out of our own experiences and sorrows. e.g. if you have a friend with a sick child you can empathise with them if you have had a similar experience, but it doesn’t have to be exactly the same experience. It is about connecting to our humanity, and acknowledging that another’s experience of the world may be different to our own current experience. Developing the ability to empathise increases prosocial/helpful behaviours towards others.
One of the biggest obstacles to delivering great customer service is a lack of caring about, or understanding of, customer challenges on the part of sales people. It can be easy to get stuck in “our” perspective of a transaction and forget to acknowledge their experience of the interaction. We tend to judge others based on their actions, yet ourselves based on our intent.
When we become aware that our view of the world is not the only view it is the first step. We need to actively seek their intent and become aware of how our actions may be perceived. Learning to empathise with others can be very powerful, even when an issue can’t be solved immediately through factors outside the agent’s control, when we demonstrate caring and understanding customer satisfaction rises. When a customer reaches out, what they often want is to be heard and feel like we truly understands what they are going through.
Roadblocks that inhibit our empathy:
1. Feeling the pressure
When our brains are under pressure we can have a hard time distinguishing between our own emotional state, and the emotional states of others. When we feel stressed about getting through a long queue of customers demanding service, we are more likely to misread a customer’s question or tone.
2. Emotions are contagious.
When we become agitated our customers are more likely to react to our agitation, with similar emotions. An angry or short tempered response is more likely to escalate a tense situation than a more conscious measured response. If a coworker, or customer, pushes your emotional buttons it may be a good idea to give yourself a few moments to centre yourself, before answering an email or picking up the phone. Unless we are mindful of what we feel it can become easy to allow one negative interaction to infect subsequent interactions, and create an anger spiral.
3. Snap decisions encourage projection.
Making pressurised decisions also make us less likely to accurately assess a situation, and to begin to project our own emotions onto the other person. Though customer service agents should be empowered to make on-the-spot judgement calls, it is a good policy to encourage them to gain perspective from someone else (e.g. call a manager or colleague) whenever stress levels are high, or emotions are running hot.
4. The stranger effect.
It is far easier to empathise with people we already know. Yet, as customer service professionals, we are often required to interact with strangers who are frustrated or upset. Biologically-speaking, this can release stress hormones that diminish our ability to empathise effectively. Being mindful of what we are feeling, and being able to recognise our natural reactions to stress can help us manage this. When we learn to recognise our stress responses we can more easily manage our stress by applying stress-reduction techniques. Stress-reduction techniques can help us calm our amygdala response before handling the next issue.
5. Defensiveness and self-protection.
It is easy to start taking things personally when we have to empathise with someone who is suffering. A natural reaction is to feel overwhelmed or attacked (in the case of an unhappy customer). For this reason we have to work extra hard to retain our ability to empathise with stressed or upset customers. We often try and shield ourselves from pain, and listening to someone who is hurting or upset can be a vulnerable experience – exposing us to feelings of defensiveness or inadequacy. This is why it can sometimes seem easier to distance ourselves from them to avoid feeling pain. Conscious mindful action from a place of caring tends to get better responses and lead to satisfactory resolutions.
The great news is that empathy can be learned, a little practice helps us become better at staying in the moment and relating to others with compassion and understanding.
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