Guest Post: This is the Secret Ingredient in the Contact Center

Colin Shaw is an official LinkedIn Influencer where he has recognized as one of the ‘World’s Top 150 Business Influencers.’ Colin’s company, Beyond Philosophy LLC, has been selected by the Financial Times as one of the best management consultancies for the last two years. Colin has written seven bestselling books on Customer experience is the co-host of the highly successful Intuitive Customer podcast.

Over my career, I have run and visited many contact centers. They are such a great source of information on the customer experience the organization is providing. I have learned so much by just sitting with an agent and listening to calls. As I have done this, I have discovered the secret ingredient of the best contact centers from an employee and customer perspective that puts them apart from others: empathy.

Defining Empathy

If you look up empathy, you will see it means the capacity for understanding and awareness of other people’s feelings. It is also the vicarious experience of these emotions and thoughts, even when you didn’t have those feelings explicitly stated to you. Empathy is what makes a contact center experience fantastic, the kind that leads to good reviews, high Net Promoter Scores (NPS), and return business.

Explaining Empathy in Customer Service

Understanding customers is essential, as empathy means you understand how customers feel, and most importantly, customers feel that you are being empathic and are listening to them. Empathy is a conversion tool.   Once you understand how the customer feels, the next question should be, how can I convert them into feelings that evoke emotions that drive value for our organization? So, for example, they may enter the experience feeling frustrated. It is the agent’s job not just to deal with the task but to make the customer leave feeling ‘valued’ or ‘cared for’, for example. They do this by reaching into the toolbox and selecting empathy to help convert the customer’s negative emotions into positives.

But how do we evoke feelings of ‘value’ and ‘cared for’? I dealt with this on a podcast called ‘How to Evoke Customer Emotions,’ which you may want to listen to below:

When you start from a place of customer empathy, you position yourself for success.

I sometimes worry when I talk with senior leaders, that they believe if they focus on empathy, they must give customers everything they want. This is not the case. Empathy means understanding why they want it. From there, you create an experience that answers their concerns and gets them to the emotional state you want.

However, there are implications from an operational perspective you need to consider. Empathy takes time to deliver and has implications for recruitment, but the benefits greatly outweigh this investment. When customers feel like the organization cares, they become loyal customers.

Recruiting with Empathy in Mind

You want a happy workplace and therefore you want to avoid emotional labor.  Emotional labor happens when employees suppress their emotions. For example, you recruit a person who does not have a high degree of emotional intelligence, and you ask them to make customers feel cared for. For some people this is difficult, and they will labor to do this. Hence emotional labor; it’s not natural for them. You need to recruit naturally empathic people. It takes even more effort to demonstrate empathy if ‘feeling it’ doesn’t come naturally.

In my past, I ran contact centers at one of the world’s largest telecom companies. While consolidating contact center sites, we were reallocating our teams to new positions. The ‘front office’ team liaised with customers; the back office proceeded with the orders. We implemented a psychological test to determine if employees had the right emotional skills to work in the front office. One person took it seven times!

The interesting aspect of this was that over 50% of the employees, who were all previously talking with customers, either chose to work in the back office or didn’t pass the psychological test to work in the front office. My learning from this was to ensure I didn’t employ people who might feel as if their jobs were forcing them into doing emotional labor. I needed to improve my recruitment process to include these psychological aspects in the recruitment selection.

Training for Empathy

Empathy and emotional intelligence go hand-in-hand. Managing your emotions and those of the people around you are the same skills that develop empathy. It’s natural to some but requires training in others.

It would be best to teach people to listen actively and respond appropriately to evoke the proper emotions. Also, give them specific actions to manage the interaction to the desired outcome supported with ongoing customer service training and practice.

For example, we know memories are formed from the highest emotional point and how people feel at the end of an interaction, known as the Peak-End Rule in the behavioral sciences. Therefore, we suggest teaching your team to recognize the most intense emotion when interacting with customers and give them specific actions to manage the customers to the desired feeling at the conclusion.

Also, ensure that measures for the contact center team align with this directive. Empathy takes time, so having a ‘time per call’ metric that rewards brevity works against you. Instead, find another measure, like NPS or customer satisfaction surveys for the call center that reward the team’s empathy efforts. What gets incented gets done.

Summarizing Empathy in the Contact Center

Understanding how the customer feels by listening leads to exceptional opportunities for your contact center team to deliver what the Customer wants and needs. Moreover, training for those who need it provides an excellent opportunity to use empathy to improve customer relationships. Combined with the right incentives, you have the secret to contact center success, which leads to the motivations that drive everyone’s bottom line.