August 17, 2021

Training for Empathy in Contact Centers

Person showing empathy through smartphone

You can’t have an efficient and productive contact center if your staff isn’t equipped with exemplary training. The ideal way to meet or exceed key performance indicators (KPIs)—and more importantly, to produce the ultimate customer experience and satisfaction—is to empower and equip agents for success. Well-trained agents provide a cost-effective, world-class customer experience.

And customers are demanding these experiences. Consider these statistics from Microsoft’s State of Global Customer Service:

  • 61 percent of consumers have stopped transacting with a business after a poor service experience
  • 59 percent of customers have higher expectations for customer support than they had a year ago
  • 39 percent of customers think that the process of engaging with customer service organizations is getting easier; 26 percent think that it has gotten harder
  • 33 percent of consumers say that the most important aspect of a good customer service experience is resolving their issue in one interaction—no matter how long it takes

In a series of blogs, based on a podcast with one of our call center directors of training, we are presenting some keys to better contact center training. Previous blogs discussed using multiple modalities and adopting top technologies to improve training. This blog delves into teaching, adopting and applying empathy throughout your customer support.

EMPATHY AS A SKILL

Empathy is incredibly important, especially in today’s world. “Most people are tired of hearing the simple words ‘I’m sorry,’” said Joshua Mims, call center training director, in the podcast. “It doesn’t go as far as it used to.” To this end, empathy can be employed in customer support to connect more deeply with customers and provide a better, more-satisfying experience.

It helps to first define empathy. While similar, there are some key differences between empathy and sympathy:

  • Sympathy is feeling a sense of compassion or sorrow for the hardships that another person encounters
  • Empathy is putting yourself in the shoes of another, the ability to imagine yourself in another person’s situation, experiencing their emotions, ideas or opinions

As you might surmise, empathy can be a powerful skill to have, especially in customer-facing roles. There’s a difference in saying “I’m sorry” and actually processing some of the frustration or elation that a customer is feeling. That emotional intelligence and diving more deeply into the customer’s experience can better empower agents to address and resolve issues.

It’s important to note that empathy can differ across cultures, as well. Some cultures are more empathetic by nature, and some are not. Some cultures may insist on sharing empathy, while others may shy away from it. It is always good to know where agents and customers reside, as well as how best to do business and meet their needs.

CALL CENTER EMPATHY

According to Mims, empathy in the call center is about “breaking down barriers” between company and customer, as well as having an “authenticity to all interactions” to build trust and connection with customers. That trust extends to everything—knowledge shared, answers provided and satisfaction felt.

You can’t provide solutions until you understand the problems people are facing. Gather information about what your customers are going through right now. Have their circumstances changed? Where are they struggling? What are their most-pressing needs? Remember that different groups of people will have different concerns. Look for insights that can help you tailor experiences to individuals. Here are two ways to apply empathy:

PERSONALIZE YOUR MESSAGING

Your customers’ inboxes are flooded with emails from companies that don’t say much. People are tired of trite, impersonal messages. Stand out by showing them that you actually know them and care about them. What customer data can you access? What are your customers’ behaviors, tendencies, likes or dislikes? Leverage this information to personalize your communications so customers feel seen and understood. Here are some examples:

  • Always use the customer’s first name.
  • In your greetings, ask how she/he is doing today to begin the conversation before launching into an issue.
  • Give skilled agents a little freedom. If agents can successfully veer from a script, interactions will feel more authentic and natural.
  • Listen to feedback. Use survey data to make improvements to service and products.

BUILD CONNECTION IN DIGITAL SPACES

The pandemic accelerated a trend toward digital experiences that was already in progress, and it will only grow with time. Find new ways to meet your customers where they already spend their time. How can you do more with them online? What new products or services would make their day more convenient or less stressful? Aim to create connection and belonging.

And remember: The experience customers have on your website is part of the overall customer journey. Personalizing the occurrence is part of good customer service. You can use custom overlays, special messages and displays aimed at specific users to achieve an individualized website experience.

TEACHING EMPATHY

Despite a common misconception, soft skills can indeed be taught. However, Mims said, a skill like empathy can be “easier to teach in person, so learners can understand how body language, eye and hand motions” come into play. However, empathy also can be present in, or missing from, an agent’s vocal tone and pitch. For example, does it sound like the agent is reading a script, or are they genuine in their connection to the customer's need?

Online learning is a great way to boost soft skills, such as empathy. Through eLearning, agents can improve existing skills or learn something completely new, in a time and place that’s convenient for them. With the proliferation of smart devices and fast network speeds, centers can push eLearning via multiple modalities, such as video vignettes, social learning, text-based courses and more. Agents could even use their daily commute to develop abilities on the go.

For more kinesthetic learners, you can create role-play scenarios to explore ways to learn interpersonal skills, such as empathy. Build relatable stories and situations, not trite conversations, that teach employees to apply empathy in their daily lives. Role plays can also teach agents how to modulate pitch and tone in their interactions, properly expressing empathy and building confidence with customers.

Placing interactive, quick quizzes in your online training is a good way to get agents to engage with and remember these steps. For example, you can present them with cards showing several qualities, such as “Showing Patience,” “Asking Good Questions” and “Acting Disrespectful.” They can then drag and drop those qualities into whether they are Positive or Negative techniques in customer service.

Another example is having agents listen to audio or watch videos of an agent-customer interaction. They can then identify moments that were empathetic and those that were negative with visual and verbal cues. This is useful for learning how empathy looks and sounds in practice, how to “smile” with their voice, how to listen for customers’ frustration, etc.

Training agents on empathy-related skills, such as active listening, is always good practice. But you need to make sure your agents know how to implement the new skills effectively and know what to do to keep improving them. Active listening involves five steps:

  1. Be ready and focus on the customer.
  2. Listen for key facts and feelings.
  3. Take notes on what you are hearing.
  4. Show you are listening. Use good voice tones and ‘verbal head nods’ (“uh huh,” “yes,” “mmhmm,” “oh,” “I see”) to let the speaker know that you are paying attention.
  5. Confirm what you heard before you respond. Briefly restate or paraphrase what the customer said. For example, “What I heard you say is…” or “If I understand correctly, then…”

To drive home empathy in customer service, you can teach agents several core empathetic phrases to use in customer interactions:

  • “I’m so sorry that you feel this way, Mr. Smith…”
  • “As a solution, may I suggest that…?”
  • “What I’ll do right now is…”
  • “We really do appreciate this feedback, Mrs. Jones…”
  • “I'm sorry you've had this experience with our support. I'd like to try and help.”
  • “Thank you so much for letting us know about this, Sir/Madam…”
  • “Thank you so much for your patience/understanding, Mrs. Smith…”
  • “I will do this for you right away.”

You can even print these out on notecards to place on agents’ desks!

HOLISTIC BENEFITS

Empathy is a crucial part of your customer experience. When companies focus on delivering empathetic customer service, even a simple interaction can be impactful and memorable. It reflects positively on the brand when customers feel like they are heard, their concerns are taken seriously, and the company is doing everything it can to help them.

Further benefits may be evident:

Empathy improves satisfaction. Customers feel more satisfied in relationships with companies that offer better information exchange, perceived expertise, interpersonal trust and a sense of partnership. Customers want to feel like more than a number.

And this satisfaction also extends to employees. Empathy training helps agents feel better prepared for calls and contacts, leaving them more satisfied and connected in their daily work and more empowered to build on workplace skills.

Empathy improves outcomes. In a Cogito survey analyzing data from more than 2.3 million calls where phone professionals were more empathetic, the following trends emerged:

•    4.9 percent increase in Net Promoter Score (NPS)
•    8 percent average decrease in handle time
•    1.7 percent average increase in first-call resolution

Empathy reduces stress and fosters resilience. It’s less measurable, perhaps, but employing more empathy in interactions with customers and among employees can foster trust, personal growth and connection. Employees exhibit more creativity around new ideas and problem-solving, and learning is enhanced when the human element is addressed.

Empathy is one soft skill that should be in every business’s toolkit. It can be taught and learned, but it can also be tricky to implement and even more challenging to maintain over long periods. But the potential payoff is enormous: greater customer satisfaction and loyalty, increased first-call resolutions and much more.

To learn additional keys to great contact center training, listen to the podcast now. And if you’re looking to improve outcomes with your customer or technical support, you can also reach out to our Outsourcing professionals.

 

BPO study reveals biggest challenges for growing tech companies