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The many faces of empathy, and how to use all of them.

The not so simple law of empathy

The simplest definition of empathy is “to understand and feel what somebody else is feeling” and it should be extremely easy to understand why this virtue is so important for customer care. Yet empathy is a pretty complex thing that embraces many different feelings, that are not all equally useful in this field.

Emotional empathy is what makes us feel what somebody else is feeling. It’s the reason we cry when actors on the screen are playing a sad part, or we laugh when we hear canned laughter over sit-coms: we identify with what we see, we put ourself in that very same spot.

It’s interesting to notice that deep down this is a profound egotistic feeling: we project ourselves on other people, we put ourselves in their shoes… and that’s why we understand them. Also, this type of feeling is based on sheer emotion: we feel, all right… but feeling isn’t always understanding.

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Cognitive empathy is way more interesting. It’s more cold-thinking and less hot-feeling: it allows you to understand what the other is feeling… without over-identifying with them. You have a clear picture but at the same time you know that it’s not about you: it’s about somebody else. This type of empathy brings enough detachment to allow you to understand, rationalize… and help.

Feel their rage

Most times, customer care agents have to deal with people in a deep state of anger and distress: they have a problem that they cannot solve; they feel neglected or (even worse) cheated; they are afraid of losing time, money or precious belongings; they are frustrated and do not know what to do.

And of course they take all these feelings out on to those that are actually trying to help them. Losing one’s patience is easy… and there’s no training and no company policy strong enough to prevent it. It’s a tough job, that requires attitude and tact.

Yet emotional empathy might help us out. If we stop for a moment and think… of course customers are screaming, of course they are mad, of course they become hysterical and impolite: wouldn’t we act exactly in the same way if we were in their place?

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This can be the trigger to curb down the raving rage and ignite a real dialogue with customers: because the cool thing about empathy is that it actually tends to work both ways. Which means that if we are really feeling what the other is feeling… they sooner or later empathize with us, too. They begin to tear down the wall of frustration that they built all around them and they start to listen. 

And this is more or less where customer care begins.

Keep your head cool and your hands busy

This is also where emotional empathy should be put aside, and cognitive empathy should kick in.

Now we need to understand what the clients are not in the position to understand, due to their lack of calm and knowledge: we really need to focus on the problem, brushing aside all the bad attitudes, hard feelings and strong emotions. Our head needs to be extra clear because we have to do the thinking both for us and for our client! 

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The customer is (almost) always right and we also perfectly understand his emotional situation… but now we need to explain our company’s reasons  as well! To do so without enraging the customer is essential to put things in his perspective without any cheap self-defense automation in place: better being honest than making him feel cheated. After all the true aim of customer care is to bridge the gap between what the client feels that they deserves and what our company can practically do for them.

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Keeping the customer’s point of view always in mind without getting buried in it will help us deal with issues more quickly and effectively… and will also avoid a great deal of stress, both for the customer and for the customer care agent!

Hat tip: This brilliant article from Berkeley University.

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