Customer Support, Empathy & Compassion

Empathy is the experience of understanding another person’s condition from their perspective. You place yourself in their shoes and feel what they are feeling. 
~ Psychology Today

Over the last 10 years I’ve spent a great deal of time providing customer support for software companies. I’ve been both a direct provider of online support, and the manager of small teams of support agents. In all these years of providing support, during which time I’ve had decent successes at making and keeping customers happy as well as some complete and total failures, the one idea I’ve never fully bought in to is the idea that one must show empathy toward those seeking support to be effective.

This may seem a shocking statement, but bare with me….

There’s a high likelihood that you’ll find empathy listed in some form or another in most job listings for Customer Support/Customer Happiness/Customer Wellbeing Guru (the new kids on the block are coming up with lots of rebranding for boring old ‘support’ titles), and there is no shortage of articles posted by various industry experts on how to train support providers to be empathetic (including some that teach you the phrases to at least appear empathetic…).

I would suggest, however, that it’s not empathy that we need to learn, teach and practice in support of our customers, but rather, compassion.

The two words are often used to mean the same thing, however, while they might share similar traits (the ability to care for others being the main), and one must have a capacity for empathy to be able to express compassion, they are different in their application/practice.

“Putting yourself in another’s shoes”, and feeling what they do, is often what we are saying support agents should do, or at least tell them they should say they are doing. I had a former boss who used those exact words to describe how I should begin a reply to an upset customer, using cookie cutter/pre-written replies with placeholders:

Hello <customer name>,
Thank you for contacting us with your concerns. I completely understand why you are unhappy with <insert scenario> . If I were in your position I would feel the same.

How is feeling what the customer is feeling in and of itself, or saying we would feel the same way, going to help anything or anyone, including the wellbeing of the support agent?

The peril of empathy isn’t simply that it can make us feel bad, but that it can make us feel good, which can in turn encourage us to think of empathy as an end in itself rather than part of a process, a catalyst to ameliorating the pain that has prompted it.
~ Leslie Jamison, commentary on ‘Against Empathy’, a piece written by Peter Bloom at the Boston Review

Moving beyond empathy, to action.

While empathy refers more generally to our ability to take the perspective of and feel the emotions of another person, compassion is when those feelings and thoughts include the desire to help.
~ What is Compassion,

What if, instead of empathy, we were to look for those who express a real desire to help others. Not so focussed on the ‘ability to put yourself in their shoes’, which in reality may not ever be 100% possible, but rather, on a real and true desire to actually do something to solve the problem presented by a customer. A real desire to see the customer through to a successful solution, and a proven history of ‘doing’ things for others, not just in their support role, but in their every day lives.

Empathy is a necessary part of being a caring person, which is a trait we absolutely want in those we task with being the voice of our company as the first line of contact with customers. But it should not stop there. Successfully helping a customer requires more than simply understanding their position, and especially more than simply providing pre-defined catch-phrases and words that express empathy.

Perhaps we should change our focus from emphasizing empathy as the trait we want in support agents (or managers, or leaders, or more…), to seeking out those who are truly compelled to take action because they care.

That trait is Compassion.