Your Customers Want Results–Not Empathy

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“I’m sorry, Mr. Diffenderfer. I understand how you feel.”

Something about that last part, the “I understand how you feel” part, really ticked me off.

Maybe it’s because of my experience in managing a team responsible for customer service. Maybe it’s because I’ve heard lots of customer service cliches. Maybe it’s because I’ve ready manuals and books on providing excellent customer service. But somehow, hearing this old familiar line trotted out really set poorly with me. It’s probably what I would have told a member of my team to say, but man, did it not work.

At that moment, standing in the airport with my wife and infant son, I didn’t need sympathy or empathy or understanding or compassion. Forget all of that. What I needed was to get home, without having to be delayed by 24 additional hours due to to an issue that was the airline’s fault.

In the January-February 2017 issue of Harvard Business Review, there was an article called “Kick-Ass Customer Service.” In it, the author argues, among other things, that we hire the wrong people for customer service positions. All of the focus has been on hiring people with high levels of empathy, people who can exhibit understanding and care for customers when they are upset.

What managers want, however, and what customers want are two completely different things. In the HBR article, they created seven unique profiles of customer service representatives and asked customers to rank them. “The Empathizer” ranks fourth in this mix, whereas “The Controller” is the most preferred customer service representative customers would rather deal with. Interestingly, Controllers only make up around 15% of the customer service population, whereas Empathizers make up 32%.

Who are these Controllers? They’re loud, opinionated, bossy, and can be seen as being pushy. They’re the ones who have a solution to every problem and will push their point of view to a fault. They’re more interested in making stuff happen than in making friends. They “don’t play nice with others” and may not be your favorite person to go on a vacation with. But they have this one distinct advantage: They get the job done.

Why do customers love these people?

Because they get the job done.

Your customers don’t want nice platitudes about being “deeply sorry for your inconvenience” or “understanding how you feel.” They hardly even care if you’re bubbly or friendly or have that “warm, friendly tone” that often gets talked about in phone etiquette. Your customers want results. They want solutions to their problems.

I’m not saying that there’s no place for empathy in customer service or enhancing the customer experience. What I’m saying is that if it’s the basis for hiring to your customer service team or the basis for an adequate response to a customer crisis, you’re missing the mark. Especially with customer service platitudes being so ubiquitous, many of these “empathy-creating” lines often ring hollow and phony, thus losing their effectiveness. As empathy-based customer service training has expanded, there’s been a rapid decline in its effectiveness. We’ve all sat on hold for far too long to be told by a customer service representative that they were “very sorry, but there’s nothing I can do.”

If your customers wanted a shoulder to cry on, they would call their therapist. Instead, they called you.

If your customers wanted a friend to commiserate with, they would call a friend. Instead, they called you.

Focusing on providing meaningful solutions to customer problems, empowering our customer service teams, and hiring reps that are solutions-focused (even if they don’t give us the warm and fuzzies) are all positive steps towards getting our customers the solutions they want. Training customer service reps to speak in an action-oriented, solutions-based speaking styles (telling customers what they will do to resolve their issues or mitigate its impact) should be a core part, rather than simply focusing on empathy. Because, ultimately, your customers want results and solutions to their problems. Otherwise, they wouldn’t have called you.

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