Learning to have more empathy when communicating with customers

Catherine Heath | March 12, 2020

Illustration of two owls surrounded by hearts

This week we’ve been thinking about how to cultivate more empathy and humanity when it comes to communicating with customers. 

It’s hard enough to achieve such things in your own life, let alone when your job is supporting frequently dissatisfied or unhappy customers. And while talking to customers can be pure joy, there are times when situations will test your patience to the limit.

That’s why empathy and humanity is what helps you turn customer support lemons into lemonade (as we discussed in a previous post).

Make it insanely easy for customers to contact you

One thing that can make talking to customers a more pleasant experience is by making it psychologically easier for your customers to interact with your company. For example, instead of requiring your customers to jump through hoops and erecting metaphorical barriers around your support team, you can get rid of all that extra stuff. Or just don’t invest in it in the first place.

Develop a helpful self-service knowledge base, but also include a contact form that takes your customer directly to a human. This approach demonstrates more empathy for the customer, because you’re making things as easy for customers as you would like them to be for yourself.

At KnowledgeOwl, we offer a contact form, telephone number, and email, so customers can choose the best way to contact us. Our customers also tend to get to know our team as individuals, and we don’t have a complex routing service that customers have to struggle through. They can even book a session with an agent of their choice, if they like. As the load on our support team grows, we also hire more support agents. It’s really that simple.

If customers don’t have to jump through so many hoops to reach you, they may just be in a better mood when you finally interact. It will then be easier for your people to have empathy for them.

Acknowledge your customer’s emotions

So, how can human beings have more empathy in the moment?

Our Head Professional Services Owl Stephen Zappia has a story to share. “At Apple, when they teach you how to handle a customer who has booked an appointment for the genius bar, the first thing they teach you to do is acknowledge the customer's emotion, followed by something like "if I were in your position, I'd be frustrated too". 

“The way they see it, you are not solving a problem with a device, you are solving a problem with the customer's relationship with Apple. From what I understand, they've changed somewhat since I did my training, and this is a little creepy, but if done well it's a really effective customer service technique. Especially for those particularly emotional confrontations!”

Working with customers in-person at a genius bar like Apple’s is certainly different from working with customers remotely. You have all the advantages of facial expressions and body language, which you should combine with verbally acknowledging their frustration. Communicating with customers remotely can sometimes give them more time to collect themselves, OR it can make people forget they are dealing with a human!

If in doubt, and a customer is upset, pick up the phone straight away.

Imagine that their dog might have just died

When customers are behaving in a less than pleasant manner, it can help to maintain your own composure by conducting a little thought exercise.

Our Chief Executive Owl Marybeth Alexander says, “It can be difficult to communicate with customers when they are being mean, rude, or otherwise awful to you. One experience that I've taken with me stemmed from a case of someone who was being awful and got escalated to me. He opened up and told me about how his brother just died. And while it doesn't excuse his behavior to us, it did really drive home the idea that you never know what another human is going through. 

“And while we cannot control how they communicate with us, we can control how we communicate back with them. When people are mean, I often have a thought like "maybe their dog just died" or something similar. It doesn't excuse their behavior but it helps me build empathy where it's otherwise difficult.”

As a customer support hero, it’s helpful to remind yourself that people can be going through unimaginable difficulties. We really don’t know everyone’s story. 

There’s never an excuse for putting up with customer abuse, but many times customers will calm down if you listen to them and take them seriously. 

Apologize – even if it’s not your fault

Another way to handle difficult customers is to apologize sincerely. Marybeth continues:

“Zingerman's teaches that the first two steps to solving any complaint is to acknowledge and apologize, over and over again if need be. And I think this is important. Listening is a powerful tool. And often people just want to be heard. And letting them get out their frustrations and apologizing even if it's not your fault can go a long way.”

Maybe it also comes down to scheduling enough time away from customers. As much as you love your job, dealing with people all day can get pretty draining – even for the most committed of extroverts.

Our Head Product & Documentation Owl Kate Mueller says, “One of the ways I have thought about this is to think about when I contact a company, as a customer, with a frustration. 

“I've worked in support for a chunk of my adult life, and so when I enter those interactions I am really mindful of the fact that the person I'm talking to is not personally responsible for or connected to my problem in any way--they just happened to be the person my ticket was assigned to. Even if I'm frustrated, I try to be pleasant to them to ask for their help, etc. (This is actually a great way to get fantastic support.)”

Part of being a good customer support hero is knowing how to be a good customer.

“But I wear that hat on the support side, too: I know that, generally speaking, if someone is contacting me with a frustration or a confusion, it's not directed at me--I am just the representative for that. And when I've received support, I like the people who are personable with me, who not only solve my problem but also suggest something above and beyond what I initially called for. So those are traits I try to model when I work support.”

Use your own products regularly

It’s a lot easier to be empathetic when you can understand the situations customers find themselves in. That means becoming a devoted user of your own products.

Kate says, “I use our product, regularly. This gives me a great deal of empathy when customers submit tickets on things that I, personally, find less than intuitive. So where possible, dogfooding your own product or service can be a great way to develop natural empathy to a customer's plight!”

It’s easy to fall under the “curse of knowledge” and assume that someone is as capable of doing things as you are. In reality, if someone’s contacting support, it’s likely that they have much less knowledge and capability than you do. You’re in a position of power and responsibility to help them!

Customer service expert and author Jeff Toister recommends:

  • Hiring people who know the products well, and will share the customer’s enthusiasm
  • Helping employees to gain the experience of being a customer
  • Making it clear that you support employees demonstrating empathy for customers

Famous real-life examples of empathy

Empathy can occur more readily when employees aren’t required to hang their heart at the door just to survive in the workplace. In fact, some customer service examples are so awe-inspiring they make it into the news and stick in popular consciousness, repeated over and over again in customer service circles like apocryphal tales. 

Dominos Pizza

One Dominos employee actually saved someone’s life in Salem, Oregon. Branch manager Sarah Fuller noticed that regular customer Kirk Alexander had not ordered any pizza for two weeks. She asked one of their delivery drivers to check on him.

When the driver arrived at the customer’s address, they noticed the lights and TV were on – but Alexander didn’t answer the door. So, the driver called 911.

Thanks to this awesome combination of empathy and action, the customer received life-saving emergency medical attention and made a full recovery.

American Airlines

This next story is even more jaw-dropping. It’s perhaps not so much an example of empathy as it is of pure heroism in action. 

An American Airlines employee Christofer Hatcu was a former firefighter, so he had learned first aid training. Passengers in the terminal were calling out for help – someone was having a heart attack.

Hatcu rushed over and administered life-saving CPR. But that wasn’t the end of the story.

A few minutes later, another passenger was reported as having a heart attack. The news reached Hatcu, and he raced to the other end of the airport where he successfully saved the life of another passenger. 

What a hero! 

Final remarks

It’s not just about having empathy – it’s about combining that empathy with compassionate action that helps us demonstrate our shared humanity.

Your commitment to customers has to infuse at every layer of the organization. There’s only so much that individual support agents can do on their own. Companies have a duty to structure their operations around customers, and that means investing properly in customer support personnel and infrastructure.

Great culture, processes and people can combine to create much more empathetic customer communication.

Develop your own self-service knowledge base for your customers! Take our knowledge base software KnowledgeOwl for a free spin. 


About the author
Catherine Heath
Catherine Heath

Catherine is a freelance writer based in Manchester. She writes blogs, social media, copy, and designs owl-based images. She believes in ditching the jargon – just give her plain writing.

You can find out more about Catherine on her personal websites Away With Words and Catherine Heath Studios.


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