Building Empathy In an Electronic World

Thank you to Jill Henley for suggesting this followup to last November’s blog post about empathy.

As noted in the original post, empathy develops best face-to-face, when we can see customers’ facial expressions and we can demonstrate our caring  the same way. But what if, as is the case in most of our interactions with customers in a technical support environment, we just cannot see each other and body language is pretty much absent?

1. Sharpen your reading skills

It is more difficult to “read” the customer’s emotional state in an email compared to in person, but ALL CAPS and other stylistic quirks easily flag an upset mindset. In fact, the anonymity of electronic communication may cause customers (and especially introverts) to let loose more than they would on the phone or in person — a plus when it comes to reading between the lines.

Also attend to any changes in the style of communication over time. Disappearing greetings, tighter phrasing, more demands and fewer offers are all signs that the customer’s patience is running thin over the course of a long troubleshooting period.

2. Sweat the emails

While it’s often best to attempt to switch to a richer communication medium if one feels that the customer is upset, email can be used to show empathy. The secret is to absolutely avoid cliches and overused phrasing in favor of short and personal expressions of empathy. Compare and contrast “Your ticket is very important to us and will be resolved expeditiously” with “I understand that you have 200 users down and I will give you an update on the outcome of the log review by 10am”. True, you cannot save the latter as a canned response — but it’s surprisingly easy to train support engineers to create it on the fly. (The formula is simply: “I’m sorry for your pain” + “I will do this”.)

3. Offer a more direct interaction

As you move from email to chat to phone, interactivity goes up and with it the ability to empathize and demonstrate empathy. In a heated situation, offer to switch to a more interactive channel. The customer may decline, but the mere existence of the offer demonstrates caring.

Support engineers may cling to email for efficiency reasons or because they don’t feel comfortable thinking on their feet. It’s true that email may seem efficient but if the extra time spent chatting or speaking with a customer results in better alignment, efficiency will increase tremendously post-conversation so the investment is worthwhile. As for thinking on one’s feet, it’s another training opportunity. A confident “I understand the issue now. I will research a solution and get back to you this afternoon” will allow a gracious exit and still build confidence in the customer.

4. On the phone, listen for tone

Compared to email, a phone conversation makes it much easier to understand the customer’s state of mind since tone of voice is a more reliable indicator than choice of words. Train support engineers to attend to tone of voice, especially at the beginning of conversations.

At the same time, customers are very sensitive to the support engineers’ tone of voice. A weary or sarcastic “I feel your pain” or even “I’ll get back to you very soon” can backfire easily.

5. Try a video chat

Few support organizations use video chats as a routine communication channel but they can be a useful tool for understanding and displaying emotions. I personally find it very challenging to read one-inch faces and accommodate the jerky movements of low-bandwidth videos, but at the same time I’ve found that I understand where customers are coming from much better after 30 seconds of poor video, even if preceded by long phone conversations — so there is something unique in visual communication.

As an aside, try attaching a photo to emails and other written communications. It instantaneously makes the communication more personal, hence more empathetic.

Do you use video chats for support? Please share!

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1 Comment

  • Marion Parrish Reply

    We don’t use video chats for technical support

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