Building empathy in support

Empathetic listeners are relationship builders.

Understanding how someone feels is one thing, but internalizing that experience and making it your own is another.

Before entering the tech world, I worked in many customer facing roles. I learned the most working as a gate agent for a major airline. I learned firsthand that there is an art to communication. I was hired to work during the most difficult time of the year — summertime.

Storms were prevalent and often caused flight delays that would take days to recover. Each day presented its own unique challenges. I saw passengers yell and threaten gate agents, and vice versa. I‘d often dissect conversations to see what went wrong and what was lacking that would lead to such an undesirable outcome. Granted, the airport can be a stressful place, but did it really warrant all that?

As with any customer facing role, there’s always a fair share of customers who are simply having a bad day. And no matter what you do, sometimes that negative energy is directed towards you.

That. Happens.

But is there a way diffuse a situation before it escalates to the point of no return? I think so. And it starts with empathy.

Let’s go back to my airport days for a moment. Telling someone that their flight departed without them was no easy task. And extreme bluntness in most cases was anything but graceful. But how you choose to communicate and help them afterwards can go a long way. It can make or break the customer’s experience. Showing empathy doesn’t fix every problem, but it can help in most situations.

It doesn’t mean that everyone leaves happy. It means that everyone feels valued.

My gate agent days are long gone. But I find that empathy is still the root of successful relationships. Here are 3 tips on how to show empathy in the world of customer support.

  1. Replicate the experience and feel the results

Before recommending a solution that could work — try replicating the problem the customer is experiencing. Internalize the pain they may be feeling. The key is to avoid offering blind solutions. Instead, test for yourself to see if the suggestion you have in mind could really help them.

The downside. Testing to validate if your idea works could take more time than you expect. But if your primary focus is the customer’s success, then 99% of the time it’s worth the effort. I rarely find myself regretting that I spent to much time helping a customer. But I have had moments of regret that I didn’t spend enough time dissecting a problem. The point? Ask great questions and be a detective to figure out the root of the customer’s pain.

Try not to give a response that feels rushed or insincere. Instead of thinking about how they might feel, take it a step further and consider how you would feel in their shoes. Here’s an example of what that doesn’t look like:

Sample support case:

Hey guys, I’m having trouble using the JIRA integration. It’s not letting my log in. What’s up?


Don’t do this:

Hi Adam,

That’s really messed up. Maybe using your Atlassian credentials will help?

This reply isn’t helpful.

First of all, are we asking a question, or making a statement?

Second, instead of asking them to test if using their Atlassian credentials would work — feel the results for yourself and test on your end first. Yes, this may delay the response time. But you’ll save the customer time (and frustration) by being proactive and making sure what you’re suggesting will help them.

The key is to ask specific questions and offer specific solutions.

2. Be the voice, not just the record keeper.

Can you name 5 problems with the product you support? Have you made a note of the customers that are affected by this problem? If you answered yes to both questions, give yourself a pat on the back.

Record keeping is fundamental to offering great support.

But while note taking is a great habit, being the voice for your customer is a different story. The customer has no way of communicating with your developers or product team. You do.

How loud is your voice and how do you convey ideas in a way that motivates your team to make changes? Could you share how making those changes would have a positive impact on the business?

Feature requests and bugs are all good to know about, but it means nothing if your voice falls on deaf ears or if the customer’s feelings aren’t expressed accurately.

On the other hand, if you’ve done all those things and the request hasn’t sparked a change, try not to take offense. It doesn’t mean that your voice wasn’t heard.

Sometimes feature requests aren’t feature requests. They may be skipped for business purposes, or simply to innovate another idea. When you’re the voice for your customers, it doesn’t mean that you have to report every single request, or that you’ve failed because it didn’t motivate a change.

But it does mean that those that need to know (developers, product managers and etc) are aware of the important requests or pains that customer’s feel.

3. Write to your friend

Talk to your customers like you’ve been friends for decades. Instead of getting frustrated when they need a little handholding, why not hop on a call with your long lost friend?

One day, I was explaining to a friend via text how to do something on their computer. We were going back and forth for a few minutes. Minutes turned into almost an hour until I decided to call them. We talked and figured things out in less than 5 minutes. Why not take this approach with customers?

The benefit. It shows that you’re personable, empathetic, and are a real human. It connects the product to an individual. And in some cases, a call can provide additional context about a problem that you may not have received in an email.

If having a call with a customer causes you to break out in hives — don’t worry. There are several ways to be personable without causing yourself too much anxiety. If hopping on a video call isn’t your preference, descriptive screenshots and screencast videos can be just as helpful. Wistia Soapbox is a wonderful tool and we use it at Wildbit.

Empathy doesn’t always come naturally. But if you work in support — it’s a requirement.

When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That’s when you can get more creative in solving problems. — Stephen Covey

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