Empathy Must Be the New Norm in Contact Centers

The more digital our society becomes, the greater the need for contact center representatives to demonstrate empathy. That is a challenge requiring contact centers to understand the definition of empathy, why it is so important, and to incorporate that trait into their hiring practices.

Many who are looking for work in a contact center environment have been raised with digital tools and toys and know all about instant gratification. What they might not know is how to recognize underlying emotions and how to respond, human to human.

Maya Angelou, the late poet and civil rights activist, is often quoted as saying, "People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel." While there has been a bit of controversy over whether Angelou or Carl Buehner, a high-level official in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, actually came up with the original quote, it's clear that the meaning is vitally important today.

Once again, our world is digital, and customers prefer to self-serve; it's fast, accurate, and anonymous. But, when self-serve doesn't serve the customer well and the customer wants an answer, contact is made and the customer wants help. Contact center associates must deal with more complex issues that require both problem-solving skills and the ability to comprehend the issue. No one exists in a vacuum, and a big piece of solving a problem is to listen and understand the customers' underlying emotions.

Contact centers must update their hiring requirements and include an assessment of candidates' relationship skills. Quality monitoring tools are important, as are quality metrics like hold times and length of calls, but they are only part of the process. Potential hires should be able to demonstrate the ability to actively listen and not only hear what customers are saying but grasp how they are feeling.

Recently, our company conducted a mystery shopper study. The consumer started the conversation with, "I just had a baby, and I have question about one of your products." Only one associate out of 20 first responded with, "Congratulations on the birth of your baby, you sound excited," before ever asking the customer about her question. In another study, for a hotel rewards hotline, the consumer's question was, "My husband recently passed away and I want to know if I can get his points transferred to my account." In this case, only two associates first said, "I'm sorry to hear about your husband's passing," before letting her know what the policies were.

Even more basic statements, such as, "I have tried so many times to rectify these issues online, but can't," should receive a response as, "I'm sorry you are so frustrated, but I can help you that."

As already stated, calls and emails are more complicated. With the volumes of information available on the web, and every company employing self-servicing tools via chat, IVR, and bots, when the phone rings, know there is a human emotion attached.

I was fortunate to hear a presentation from Don Woodward, senior vice president of customer channels at Capital One, during a recent conference. I was very impressed; Capital One has infused empathy throughout its channels when possible. For instance, if a consumer hits a link to a frequently asked question: I can't pay the minimum payment, a screen pops up, saying, "We want to help. We understand that things happen, and it's easy to fall behind. These are your options." That's a simple but powerful way to show customers that your company is empathetic to their situations, even digitally. Again, I was impressed.

There is good news. Contacts with call centers have become complex; when representatives are empathetic and resolve the issue, customers are very appreciative. The more intricate matters provide the contact center with opportunities to demonstrate their worth to the company.

One additional piece to the puzzle, along with understanding the need for empathy, is empowerment. It must be part of the equation. Give your representatives the tools they need to solve the problem so the call value is not diminished.

Find the most effective formula to hire, train, and empower associates and couple that with infusing the human-to human connection into every interaction. Remember Maya Angelou and what people remember about how you make them feel, even more than how you respond to their questions or concerns. Remind your representatives to listen for how the customer is feeling as a guarantee to solidify the relationship. That will differentiate you from your competitors.

Richard Shapiro is founder and president of The Center for Client Retention.