Empathy: the final frontier in customer service

November 7, 2019

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time at comic book stores, chasing down books for my manga-obsessed kid. No matter how many times I show up, I know I’m not one of them. It’s not about the way you look, not at all. It’s about the conversations. Each store, even the smallest one, becomes a meeting place for the tribe, a safe haven for the real fans who read comics all year round, not non-fan parents like me who are just trying to encourage our kids’ reading habits. Going to the comic book store is a true experience — flicking through the pages, exchanging ideas with other comic aficionados — one that is unique to that specific location.

There are many multinational companies that started out just like any other small, local business. Before Apple, Steves Jobs and Wozniak assembled the first computers in their garage to distribute in a local store. Starbucks started out as your cozy Seattle coffeeshop. They became successful not because they were aiming for fame, but because customers loved them. It was a niche market catering to a small number of people who go to know them and became super fans.

Nowadays when you step into a Starbucks, no matter where you are in the world, the experience is the same. The beverages are loaded with sugar and taste of everything except coffee, there is the same plastic-wrapped food everywhere and the names on the cups are inevitably spelled wrong. Somewhere along its international expansion, Starbucks lost its gourmet edge and failed to deliver on its initial promise of a dedicated coffee experience, leaving room for smaller, local coffeeshops to thrive.

But could Starbucks — or any other global company — have gone through such exponential growth while maintaining its authenticity?

It’s personal

What makes local businesses stand out from multinational chains is their proximity to customers. They know them well, in some cases even by name, to the point where you don’t have to say a word for them to bring you your usual order.

In a way, it’s weird having to talk about the importance of customer centricity in this day and age. Don’t we constantly hear that the customer is always right? You see, customer centricity isn’t about customers being right or wrong when they need support or have a bad experience; it’s about thinking of them every step of the way.

An awesome product or service will initially lead to happy customers, which in turn leads to referrals that lead to more sales that lead to more expansion — until nothing about the experience is awesome anymore. The stores are no longer special and employees all look and talk the same. There’s an internal academy to recruit and train them, there are playbooks and guidelines that limit the depth of any given conversation. Businesses are obsessed with industrial-age conformity, and while they might work to scale the initial customer experience, they end up ruining it.

Scaling a business often puts companies in a paradoxical position. On one hand, they become successful because they offer products or services that people like and want. But on the other hand, they loose their connection to the customer. All operations are automated, massified or outsourced in order to efficiently manage millions of daily customer interactions, eventually leading to a disconnection between company and customer. That’s why a lot of us prefer our local cafe or grocery store — because they still offer a personalized and empathetic service and treat customers like real people and not mere consumers.

When it comes to customer service, the scenario looks the same. You no longer call the store you purchased your product from if you encounter any problems with it. Instead you call a centralized number and get the same consistent answer no matter who you talk to or how severe the issue is. It’s fair to say that companies have removed a lot of humanity from customer service; it’s become predictable, controllable, and measurable, rather than personal. There’s no sense of empathy, of emotion, of social interaction. Everything that makes us humans is removed.

Scaling authenticity

Scaling empathy and authenticity is a big challenge, so how do you do it? I think the only possible solution is to focus on the people. And I don’t mean just the customers.

Employees are people, too, and they are able to establish authentic and personal relationships with customers. Are the processes, policies or rules they followed keeping them from being themselves? If we treat customer interactions as something replicable that should follow the same script every time, it’s impossible for customer service agents to be empathetic.

Customer centric companies focus on a metric called NPS — Net Promoter Score — that shows how likely a customer is to recommend that brand. Companies that are beginning to focus on their employees are using another metric on top of that called eNPS — Employee NPS — which measures the likelihood of an employee recommending the company as a place to work. A high eNPS score usually translates into a high NPS score. So…

Free the humans!

Leverage available technology to free your agents from any system-like task — any information they might need should be instantaneously available at a click away. Have you ever been to a store where the person that should be talking to you is operating a computer for an endless amount of time doing some other task? They should be talking to the customer, not keyboarding their way trough the system. Any relevant materials the agents need to do their job should be easy to find.

There are a number of things businesses can implement. There are internal bots that help team members find the content they need, in just a few simple clicks. Or they can turn their most frequently asked questions into actual FAQs for their help center. By analyzing all emails and chat interactions with the help of AI, companies can scan their entire interactions to find the most common questions from customers, which can help build FAQ articles users can access. This way customers can try to solve their queries themselves and turn to agents when they need a more personalized support.

Hire for empathy and social connection

Empathy is what makes a great customer-facing professional, but if it’s missing, it’s very hard to train for. It’s much easier to teach technical knowledge, so focus on finding someone with the people skills and provide them with the information and training they’ll need to succeed.

Betting on employees’ best traits and allowing them to bring these into the job is key to a customer centric business. In order for them to be truly empathetic with a customer they need to be able to react authentically, instead of sticking to the same script every time.

On the other hand, if you have technically able but not empathetic employees, remove them from the front line and have them focus on building the technology and scaling their knowledge.

Give power to the people

Guidelines, playbooks. and scripts are important to have in place to help agents at their job, but they shouldn’t be set in stone. What separates good customer service from an excellent one is the ability to hear the customer and adjust the support to their situation.

Managers should empower their agents to decide on the spot what the best solution to a specific problem is and feel like they are actually making a difference in the customer’s life rather than just treating them the same way they did the customer before.

Customer centric companies show a tendency to decentralize decisions and give the agents the autonomy to solve each customer query the best way they see fit. At the same time, they give agents, those who works closest with the customers, the opportunity to listen to them and bring those conversations to the whole company.

It is impossible to be empathetic without listening. And it’s impossible to be a customer centric businesses without empathy.

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