5 Ways to Dial Up Empathy in the Call Center (or Anywhere Else)

There’s nothing new about empathy. It’s a safe bet that for as long as humans have been hanging out together, we’ve been feeling each other’s anger, joy and heartbreak in a personal way.

But empathy does seem to be having something of a moment. The New York Times alone has published more than a dozen headlines featuring the word “empathy” in the past year, and hundreds more articles that reference and focus on it. Google serves up endless results on the subject from the same time frame, exploring the empathy of everyone from role-playing gamers to European soccer stars. The Daily Mail even reported on a study that found touching sandpaper increases people’s empathetic response.

In all of the conversation surrounding the subject, one thing seems certain: People need empathy. And in some situations, they’re really, really not getting it.

Empathy vs. Sympathy

Simply put, Empathy is feeling with someone, as opposed to feeling for them, otherwise known as sympathy. People often confuse the two concepts, which can be anything from a mistake to a disaster, as a sympathetic response can have the exact opposite of the intended effect.

If you want some great examples of how differently the two responses impact the same situation, look no further than Emily McDowell’s wonderful Empathy Cards™. The artist and cancer survivor designed the line of cards to give people coping with sickness or loss the kinds of honest, unvarnished messages she wished she’d received during her own illness.

With messages like, “I promise never to refer to your illness as a ‘journey’ unless someone takes you on a cruise” and “I’m really sorry I haven’t been in touch. I didn’t know what to say,” the cards are a far cry from the usual Hallmark fare — and infinitely more real, meaningful and less isolating to someone suffering through a difficult time.

In her announcement of the cards’ launch, McDowell wrote, “It’s not often that you look at a greeting card and think, ‘The world needs this,’ but in this case, I really believe that’s true.” The world apparently agrees. Since their debut in May of 2015, the cards have received a massive amount of press attention and overwhelmingly positive feedback on social media, and nine new cards have been added to the original series of eight.

Empathy wins like McDowell’s amplify the ugh-factor of high-profile empathy failures. Unfortunately, there’s no shortage of those. American Airlines’ heartless form letter to a grieving family and a Domino’s employee’s ill-considered scolding of a tired nurse’s last-minute order are only two recent examples of corporate empathy tone-deafness. The list of similar (and much worse) offenses goes on and on.

Companies are starting to get the message about empathy, however, and many are attempting to remedy the problem at one of the most egregious sources of it: the call center. As the most significant customer touch point, it’s the idea place to focus such efforts. But as the extremely empathize-able title of Katherine Reyonlds Lewis’s March 2016 Fortune article on the subject indicates, not all of them are successful.

The Empathy Challenge

Why is it so hard for organizations to get empathy right, especially on the phone? For one thing, customers and call center agents are often experiencing some degree of stress in a service interaction. According to a Wall Street Journal article, stress effectively shuts down our empathetic response, which means the very situations that render customers most in need of empathy can render employees the least capable of giving it to them.

Another reason — maybe the biggest — is that different people have different empathy needs. Few people can make a canned script sound authentically empathetic, and empathy without authenticity isn’t really empathy at all. But even a well-written message delivered by a practiced call center agent is still, inevitably, only aimed at one personality style. If it’s not yours, you’re not going to feel recognized and understood by the person you’re talking to. Quite the opposite, in fact.

As tough as the empathy problem is, it’s one well worth solving. Positive emotional experiences have been proven to drive key metric improvement, which means empathy-building efforts can have direct bottom-line impact. London-based consultancy group The Empathy Business (formerly Lady Geek) publishes an annual Global Empathy Index of the most and least empathetic companies. Harvard Business Review reported that the top 10 companies on the 2015 list increased more than twice as much in value as the bottom 10, and generated 50% more earnings.

Every way you look at it, empathy pays. Here are five ways to get your company on the path to delivering it in in the call center or anywhere else your customers are:

1) Disseminate a Clear Definition of Empathy

One of the clearest, cleverest and most wonderful explanations of what empathy is and why it’s so important can be found in this short, charming video narrated by Dr. Brené Brown. Key quote: “Empathy fuels connection. Sympathy drives disconnection. Rarely can a response make something better. What makes something better is connection.”

Adding your employees to the seven million people who’ve viewed this video to date could quickly elevate their understanding of what empathy is, and increasing the frequency of its deployment to your customers.

2) Identify Your Empathy Gaps

McDowell designed her cards to fill a specific empathy void she had personally and repeatedly experienced. In her words, “I want the recipients of these cards to feel seen, understood and loved.”

Take a good look at your customer journey and find the empathy deficits. Hard metrics like CSAT, promoter scores and churn rate as well as survey feedback, social media chatter, customer complaints and employee anecdotes can help surface situations where empathy isn’t happening, and point you toward a deeper dig to find out why.

3) Reverse-Engineer Empathy Fails

When you zero in on an instance where empathy was needed and lacking, recast the scene. What would the empathetic response have looked like? What would it have sounded like? How might the outcome have been different if the customer had received an authentically empathetic response from the employee? What was holding the employee back from providing such a response, and can it be impacted?

Some research suggests that when people better understand what empathy is and realize it’s a learnable skill versus an inborn trait, they’re more motivated to exercise it.

4) Empower Employees to Empathize

In that Fortune article, CX analyst Bruce Temkin says that employee empowerment is a key to delivering empathy at scale. Customer service rock stars like Starbucks Coffee and Zappos achieve that by giving their employees lots of leeway when it comes to defining and delivering great service on a per-interaction basis, which results in awesomeness like this and this.

Mattersight’s call routing solution helps companies accomplish it in the call center by pairing agents and customers with a natural personality affinity. When personalities click, genuine empathy is expressed automatically and in exactly the way each customer prefers. Those personality pairings drive a 10–30% improvement in key call center metrics.

Making it as easy as possibly for employees to be their version of empathetic, whether by explicit encouragement or implicit technology, makes the chance of an authentic, positive customer connection much more likely.

5) Make Empathy a Part of your Culture

Don’t just preach empathy to customers. Practice it among yourselves. Make empathy a stated organizational value. Incorporate empathy education into your onboarding process. Encourage and reward it through recognition, and find tools that support it.

Workstyle, for example, is a self-directed training app that puts the power of Mattersight’s routing solution into employee’s hands — not just their headsets — by teaching them to consciously identify, understand and connect with the personalities around them via fun quizzes and games. The net effect is what one customer described as “unconscious competence”: employees become more naturally, effortlessly empathetic to both customers and each other, without it being forced or fake.

A little empathy can go a long, long way toward improving customer experience, employee engagement, and all of the metrics that flow from both. Get clear on the terms, enable the execution, and you’ll feel the love in every aspect of your business.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Mattersight blog.