Empathy is not the answer

Why choice and creativity, not empathy and apologies, create happy customers

Empathy is not the answer

Why choice and creativity, not empathy and apologies, create happy customers

Imagine there is a problem with one of your domestic appliances. You have already listened to 20 minutes of a helpline’s hold music and only dropped to 15th in the queue. How would you like the call centre representative to resolve the situation when you finally get through?

As human beings we are conditioned to apologise and empathise with unhappy people. But if you are a disgruntled customer, would you rather small talk or receive a fast and effective solution to the problem, where you are given a choice and stay engaged?

Undoubtedly, a personal conversation builds trust in customer service scenarios. However, overly friendly interactions infringe on time that could have been used to solve the problem.

What customers want, what they really really want

In some situations, such as complex problem solving, there is an inverse relationship in perception of warmth and competence. This suggests that overly friendly people are perceived as less competent, perhaps because they devote too much time to the first two steps of traditional issue resolution – empathy and admission, but not enough to the critical one: rectification.

Recent findings further suggest that the representative who delivers the most customer satisfaction is a ‘Controller’ who is informed, flexible and solution oriented, as opposed to an ‘Empathiser’ who tries to build a relationship to appease unhappy customers who do not receive the help they expect.

In terms of what delivers most customer satisfaction, the research is not in complete agreement. One study of 111 airport helpdesk interactions found that what contributed most to customer satisfaction was the number of options given. In contrast, another study of 1,440 representatives found that clear guidance on the most effective solution, not excessive options, leads to the highest customer satisfaction. In reality, the answer probably lies somewhere in between where the controller finds a manageable number of options, gives the customer a recommendation with a rationale, and then puts the customer in control to decide. Where the studies complement each other is that controllers should:

  • Apologise only once at the beginning, if necessary
  • Avoid unnecessary small talk and work at pace
  • Actively involve the customer in the problem-solving process by talking through their thinking or actions
  • Think energetically and creatively of potential solutions
  • Provide some options and ultimately let the customer choose

Choice and creativity in the face of adversity

A great example of this working in practice was at Geneva Airport when my evening flight to London was cancelled due to bad weather. Planes were only allowed to take-off, not land and unfortunately my plane had not arrived yet. Instead of walking to the service desk with thousands of other people, we walked to a gate with a flight to Bristol, and what happened next was the best customer service I have ever received.

We explained the situation and asked if there were two seats left on the flight to Bristol, thinking we could get a night bus home. The representative said one of our options would be to fly to Bristol but she would see if there was another flight to London. When everyone on the Bristol flight had boarded the last bus to the plane, the bus driver came to the representative to see if boarding was complete, and she told him to wait while she confirmed whether we could go on the London flight. Minutes later she managed to secure us two places on a different London flight, printed our new boarding passes and gave the green light for the bus to leave for the Bristol flight. We made it to London the same night with a four-hour delay, and choice and creativity created my most memorable and positive customer service experience.

How to start the transformation

The representative did not make small talk or apologise, she was busy finding a solution to a tricky problem. Building an organisation where representatives adopt this new way of working requires a shift in mindset, technology and support, with sponsorship from leadership.

Train your representatives – to be more effective and efficient by adopting solution-oriented language and making them aware of the priorities of the customers. Techniques for problem solving, focusing on providing options and giving customers a final choice, will further improve the methodology and outcome of problem solving.

Enlighten your representatives – by giving them the tools, data and insights to help customers. Clarifying what data representatives need and how they need to access it at the frontline to help customers will further amplify the effectiveness of your representatives.

(This article demonstrates how you can use data to create a better understanding of customer experience by seeing interactions from their perspective:https://www.clarasys.com/insights/thinking/the-power-of-managing-cx/ )

Empower your representatives – by giving them more autonomy to come up with creative solutions. One reason for ‘computer says no’ representatives is that they do not feel supported in the organisation to think flexibly and creatively, as they may worry about violating company policy. It is the role of leadership to create a safe zone where representatives can think creatively and go the extra mile to help customers without fear of losing their jobs.

We seldom give information in the way we absorb it, and new findings also suggest we rarely provide help in the way we seek it. When representatives become true masters of empathy, they can focus on providing a choice of creative and energetically produced solutions. This can be a powerful approach, transforming objectively negative outcomes into positive experiences, which ultimately leads to better customer experience.

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