Part 1: Empathy Is Critical For Contact Center Agents

Objective of Learning Empathy

Acknowledging feelings and using empathy are such important parts of every customer contact. The agent needs to slow down and focus on the customer to perform these behaviors well. The expert agent listens intently and communicates creatively. Empathy is achieved in not only what the agent says (wording) but also how the agent says it (correct vocal tone). When an agent responds this way, the customer and the company both benefit.


Empathy means putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, letting him or her know that you understand not only the situation, but also how the situation makes the customer feel. When we empathize, we connect with the person’s feelings in two ways:

1. By making a statement that tells the person we understand the feeling, and

2. By paraphrasing his or her words to show the person we understand the issue, while not necessarily agreeing with him or her.

The expert agent:

Communicates sincerity
The tone of the agent’s voice goes a long way toward helping him convey empathy. If the agent says all the right words, but delivers them with coldness in his voice, he will sound insincere.

Does not stray from an area of professional expertise
There is a fine line between being empathetic and being a therapist. An agent cannot solve all problems. Empathy means putting yourself in the customer’s shoes, letting him or her know that the agent understands the situation and how the customer feels. When dealing with an emotional customer it is important that the agent not stray from their area of professional expertise by offering ways to deal with the emotional or other problems that are not directly related to the service issue.

Example: It would not be appropriate to address how to relieve depression, stress, or anxiety that the customer may tell the agent about or display. Understanding the customer’s concerns is important, but “treating” that feeling or giving advice may be crossing a fine line.

Does not engage in personal opinions or experiences
The skilled agent responds to these situations in a genuine, caring manner without becoming involved in personal opinions or relating personal experiences. Agent does not say, “Boy, I understand. That happened to me once and I was very frustrated.”

Agent avoids using statements that seem to agree with or approve of what the customer is saying. For example, “If that happened to me, I’d feel the same way.”

Agent acknowledges that the customer may be feeling a certain way, regardless of how it may differ from his or her own perspective.

Addresses both facts and feelings
Agents listen for facts and feelings throughout the call. Customers express themselves with facts (“The tape recorder that I bought from you broke during a major interview.”) and feelings (“And I’m very upset because I missed my deadline.”). This customer is feeling anger and disappointment. The expert agent addresses both, for example, “I’m sorry this happened. I’m sure it caused you anxiety and inconvenience. I know we can’t rewind and fix your interview, but we can certainly keep it from happening in the future. Let me get you a new one, and we will try it out to make sure it works before you leave the store.”

Expert agents are attentive to instances in which a customer communicates specific details about her situation (for example, “I am worried about running out of furnace oil because I have young children who may get cold”). She may also have specific feelings (for example, she may say “I’m frustrated that this is the third time today that I have had to call and you never call to let me know what is happening”) or motives (for example, “Our business is closing in two hours and I need to get this tank reading now! You told me that this cold weather would not cause delays in getting anyone out here!”).

While customers are usually quick to communicate their situations, they may not be as quick to communicate their feelings about the situation. The expert agent listens between the lines for what isn’t being said. The customer may not know how to say what he wants to say.

For example, he may say, “Why can’t you get me anything on time” and mean, “I am frustrated by your delivery schedule.” Expert agents are able pick up on and empathize with the probable feelings.

When a customer expresses how he feels about a situation, the agent acknowledges the expression and determines what (if any) action can be taken. She may say, for example, “I can understand your frustration. You didn’t think you would have a late charge when you signed up for automatic withdrawal.” Using a phrase such as “I understand this can be very frustrating” is more effective than “I don’t blame you for being upset. I would be too.”

The expert agent remembers to address positive as well as negative customer emotions.

Demonstrates appropriate level of urgency and concern
Showing empathy means understanding, and being sensitive to, the feelings, thoughts and experiences of the customer. It doesn’t mean that the agent must agree with a customer who is expressing negative thoughts; he only needs to recognize the point of view. The skilled agent acknowledges that the customer may be feeling a certain way, regardless of how it may differ from his own perspective. The agent uses good judgment in handling both normal and unusual situations and demonstrates that he understands what is important to the customer by responding with the appropriate level of urgency and concern.

Remains objective
The agent does not take the emotion personally. As a professional, the agent recognizes that customers may have legitimate concerns buried somewhere in their venting. They may be overreacting, but the agent needs to remain objective, assess the problem, and focus on solutions.

When a customer becomes emotional about a situation and tries to interject conflict into the call, the agent remains neutral and does not become defensive or augmentative. The agent does not confront, challenge, or become aggressive toward the customer. The agent does not match the intensity of the customer’s emotion but uses a slower rate and calm tone to control the situation. The agent does not become defensive or argumentative.

The job of the agent is not to win arguments; it is to solve a customer’s problem. While the agent should not verbally agree with the customer who says “all of you are out to get me,” she should not go out of her way to verbalize disagreement. Instead, she seeks common ground on which to build a conversation. The agent responds calmly and appropriately when provoked by the customer, who, for example uses profanity or name-calling, contradicts the employee, or challenges policies.

Kathryn Jackson is an associate with call center consultancy Response Learning Corp.

This is part one of a two-part story. Read Part 2 here.

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