The importance of empathy in customer service interactions
One of the biggest complaints consumers have, when they raise an issue with a company, is that customer service agents don’t show sufficient understanding or sympathy for their plight. In contrast, when agents apologize and demonstrate that they realize that there is a problem that is causing inconvenience, customer satisfaction rises. This is even the case if the issue can’t be solved immediately through factors outside the agent’s control.
A recent study by Penn State University backs this up. It reveals that people using web chat are happier with the customer experience if agents use emoticons and type and respond rapidly to questions. Those that used emoticons were felt to empathize more, according to the study, which was based on a survey of over 100 students recruited to take part in chat sessions on a fictitious ecommerce site. Agents who typed quickly when answering questions also rated highly, as this behavior mimicked the back-and-forth exchanges of a real conversation.
Based on this, the study concluded that empathy and responsiveness are among the essential requirements for generating successful digital interactions between customer service agents and customers.
The growing understanding gap
Earlier this year, Eptica’s own research, The Eptica Study ‘Power of Linguistics: Consumers vs Agents – can the gap be closed?’, also highlighted the importance of creating empathy in online customer service exchanges – and pointed to the difficulties of making it happen.
The survey of consumers and contact center agents highlighted a growing understanding gap between the two sides, with 31% of consumers saying that failure to have their upset or anger acknowledged by agents was a major issue. It also found that companies that fail to show empathy are likely to lose customers, with 82% of consumers revealing they always or often switched supplier if customer service staff fail to correct issues.
Agents understand they have a problem. Nearly a third (31%) of those polled in the study ‘Power of Linguistics: Consumers vs Agents: Can the Gap be closed?’ said they found it hard to recognize anger or upset in written communications such as chat sessions or emails. 61% also found it hard to understand the language and vocabulary that consumers used.
Creating customer service empathy
Empathy plays a central role in creating a satisfactory customer experience. In face-to-face or phone conversations it is easier for well-trained customer service staff to generate empathy because they have the benefit of using visual cues and tone of voice to make understanding easier.
However, more and more interactions are now through digital channels and trying to creating a feeling of empathy and emotional presence on these is a challenge. Here are three areas that can help agents to bridge the gap:
The immediacy of channels such as chat allows agents to respond in near real-time to customers. For example, they can ask clarifying questions to build rapport and help their understanding, in the same way as in a telephone or face to face conversation. This can create a sense of presence and understanding and provide a personal service to the customer, based on their specific needs.
2. Mirroring and emoticons
As the Penn State research shows emoticons can be successfully used to build empathy, helping to make customers feel like the agent has an emotional connection to them. At the same time using language that mirrors that of the customer will help to build rapport.
However, both of these may not work for everyone. For example, younger demographics (such as the students in the Penn State research) are already familiar with the use of emoticons from their day-to-day communications on social networks and text messaging. Other groups, such as older audiences, may be less comfortable with them. This also applies to using less formal language with customers – it is important not to alienate people or use phrases that could make it seem that the agent isn’t taking the complaint seriously.
Linguistic technology, based on the scientific study of language, can help agents understand the emotional context of digital customer communication. It works by automatically analyzing incoming interactions (such as emails or tweets), prioritizing them based on the tone of the language, forwarding to the most relevant agent or department and suggesting relevant answers. This not only helps with showing empathy but also makes responses more immediate and personalized to the individual customer.
Empathy is a central requirement for building a strong, engaged relationship between the customer and an organization. Emoticons are one way of building this rapport, but companies need to be sure that their use matches the needs and expectations of their customer demographic – otherwise, it could potentially have the opposite effect.