How to achieve empathy in customer service (with AI)

Natalie Smithson
AI enthusiast | Tea addict | Focused on using AI assistants to win the working week

Harvard Business Review says “emotionally connected customers are more than twice as valuable as highly satisfied customers.” They “buy more of your products and services, visit you more often, exhibit less price sensitivity, pay more attention to your communications, follow your advice, and recommend you more,” plus this emotional connection drives “significant improvements in financial outcomes.”

Find out why empathy is so critical to excellent customer service, especially now, and how AI can make it easier to deliver emotionally connected support to ultimately increase your profits.

TL;DR

  • Use empathy to increase brand loyalty, customer retention, and recommendations for your business, even more so as we move towards increased automation
  • Only one in 26 unhappy customers will complain about your service, the rest just leave, but empathy can help rescue the situation
  • Customer service agents can demonstrate empathy by doing things like matching customer emotion and you can use role play and empathy statements to create a culture of empathy
  • Gartner found “companies that deploy empathy significantly outperform those that don’t, in terms of sales and profit”
  • An AI assistant can help you get to know your customers better, give you more reliable feedback, and more, to make a marked improvement on your customer service efforts

What is empathy in customer service?

The Cambridge Dictionary says empathy is “the ability to share someone else’s feelings or experiences by imagining what it would be like to be in that person’s situation”.

That means your customer service agents don’t have to have experienced for themselves what your customer is going through to appreciate that they feel happy or annoyed or excited or upset. They simply need to recognise the customer’s emotion and acknowledge it.

The difference between empathy and sympathy

Empathy is often confused with sympathy because both involve an emotional response, but your customers don’t want sympathy: ‘Oh, that’s terrible. I’m so sorry.’ They want empathy and action: ‘That must have really screwed up your day, let’s fix it.’ This more perceptive response shows a greater understanding of how the customer has been impacted, which helps nourish a deeper connection rather than simply offering them a limp apology.

  • Sympathy is looking into the situation from the outside.
  • Empathy is being right there with your customer in the midst of how they’re feeling.

Real-world use of empathy in customer service

Apple, known for providing the kind of customer service that leaves other companies shivering in the shadow of its success, has a guide for all employees working at their Genius support desks. “The term ‘’empathy’ is repeated ad nauseum in the Genius manual,” finds Gizmodo.

It encourages Geniuses to “walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”, they say, and this approach is clearly working for the pioneering brand. SurveyMonkey found the average Net Promoter Score (NPS), which measures customer satisfaction, is 32; Apple’s is “a resounding 72“. They’re also still the most valuable company in the world.

Application of empathy in your customer service teams

In customer service, empathy is the ability to recognise the disappointment a customer feels when they’re let down on a promise or agreement, the anger that erupts when they feel they’re being dismissed, or the frustration that builds if someone feels misunderstood or senses a lack of effort to resolve their issue.

On the positive side, when the customer’s experience is good, what’s described by Google’s Empathy Lab founder, Danielle Krettek-Cobb, as an “invisible, emotional layer,” becomes visible in the sound of relief or joy in their voice as they sing your praises. Showing empathy is the ability to tap into this, so you can recognise and react to customer emotions in a way that benefits your business and reputation.

Empathy is “the social glue that holds society together,” says Elise Vierra (Ogle), who studied the topic extensively at Stanford University, so in customer experience terms, you might consider empathy the glue that holds your business reputation together.

Use it to make customers feel good about your offer, so they feel valued and understood, which increases loyalty, retention and recommendations for your business.

Why empathy in customer service has never been so crucial

It’s been reported levels of empathy have fallen by as much 48% in the past thirty years, which is contributing to a growing sense of insecurity. If ever there was a time to focus on empathy, it’s now, as we work on lessening the “growing empathy gap” or at least softening its presence.

At the same time, AI is changing the way people interact with one another.

Empathy expert, Danielle Krettek-Cobb, says “an empathetic moment requires that both beings are feeling things. That’s not possible for a machine.” Yet showing empathy still matters if you want to serve people in a way that meets their everyday human needs.

You can meet these needs using an intelligent AI assistant to deliver fast and efficient customer service 24 hours a day for hundreds of thousands of customers all at the same time ― accurately. But since an AI assistant has no feelings, how do you at the same time show customers you care? That takes some work behind the scenes and starts with strengthening empathic qualities within your support teams.

Listen to what’s left unsaid

Most customers leave silently after one or multiple purchases,” says Omniconvert, and in the UK alone, “companies lose nearly £33.4 billion per year due to customer switching,” says CallMiner.

Customer service representatives stand a far better chance of sensing customer unhappiness if they know how to detect tension in your customer’s voice and can diffuse the situation by showing empathy. Active listening will detect things like the tone and pitch of the voice, so everything that’s not said can still be addressed and an unhappy customer potentially saved.

Build deeper relationships with customers

Licensed psychologist, Dr Marjorie Schuman, says the “need to be understood is universal and basic to who we are as human beings… when we feel emotionally distressed, what we seem to need/want most is to express our feelings and have them deeply received by an empathic Other.” To resolve that, she says, customers need to feel understood and, when this happens “it often feels as though the bubble of emotional tension or worry bursts and evaporates.” That’s the effect of using empathy in customer support.

Keep customer service friendly

“AI-enabled customer service is now the quickest and most effective route for institutions to deliver personalized, proactive experiences that drive customer engagement,” says McKinsey, but regardless of whether your customer is talking to your team or your AI assistant, friendliness still matters. AI assistants are deliberately programmed to be friendly and set customers at ease. For customer service agents, empathy must help foster friendliness too. Showing you hear and understand someone’s issues helps build rapport which, in turn, keeps things on friendly terms, even if there’s a problem.

7 practical ways to improve agent empathy in customer service

Keep customer service friendly

Empathy might seem a big or somewhat loose idea to get your head around, but there are many small and simple ways your customer service agents can expertly demonstrate it:

1. Practice acceptance

When a customer tells you how they feel, accept it. As tempting as it might be to make a judgement, showing empathy leaves no room for debating if someone does or doesn’t have a right to feel the way they do. The focus is on turning things around and taking any negative emotions away.

2. Avoid being reactive

Reacting emotionally to a difficult customer can cause conflict because a negative reaction from one person can trigger negativity from another. You might then be deemed as being hostile and hostility won’t solve a situation. Keeping your cool and showing empathy instead can help you win the day.

3. Don’t take things personally

Even if you’ve made a mistake and a customer calls you out on it, try not to become defensive. When you feel wounded it’s hard to show empathy for the feelings of others. Accepting things will sometimes go wrong helps put the focus on simply making it right.

4. Let customers know you hear them

This is one of the simplest yet most powerful expressions of empathy. Even if you can’t solve a problem, your customer can still immediately feel better from having been able to express how they feel and have it acknowledged. Way to instantly calm down a situation and keep the customer onside.

5. Match your customer’s emotion

Working in a customer service role doesn’t mean you have to be jolly all the time. In fact, that can irritate customers if they’re getting in touch about a problem. Instead, match the customer’s tone. If they’re excited, their voice is probably higher and they’re speaking fast, so you can do the same. If they’re fed up, slow down your speech and quieten your voice to match. Tone matching is a known method to “show that you’re here to help”. (A sister method is to match the customer’s urgency and it’s especially useful as a B2B best practice.)

6. Check what you’ve heard

A quick confirmation: ‘You’re telling me X happened, is that right?’ or ‘If I’ve understood correctly, you need Y?’ is sometimes all a customer needs to hear to know you’re actively listening and they can trust you to resolve their query. AI assistants are also trained by skilled conversation designers to regularly check the next step before taking action: ‘Would you like me to do that for you now?’ All of which makes sure the customer is always getting exactly what they need.

7. Avoid telling customers you know how they feel

In trying to be emphatic, it can be easy to respond with ‘I know just how you feel’, but it’s always easier to keep your own feelings out of it. Keep a laser focus on how the customer feels and respond instead with: ‘I can understand why you feel that way’, so you don’t deviate in any way from solving their issue.

How to create an empathic customer service culture

Chatbot usage has doubled in the past few years and it’s fair to say companies are now comfortable adopting AI, especially for customer service tasks. Innovation changes a company, so while we’re all getting to grips with a new AI-driven way of working, it’s a great time to also embed empathy for the long-term vision of what you want your company’s values to be.

Create and embed a strong enough culture of empathy and your customers can use any channel to contact you because they’ll get the same empathic response across all of them. Empathy then becomes the foundation for all communication, alongside the other elements of your company culture that make your organisation unique.

Use role play to develop empathy skills

A great way to increase confidence in your teams is to use role play to practice showing empathy. Simulate real conversations you’ve had or might have with customers and teach your teams the best, most empathic ways to respond. Having the opportunity to practice this away from the pressure of dealing with a real customer can help customer service agents try out new tactics under the protection of a safe space. Everything they learn helps them improve.

Look at customer feedback and share stories

If you want your teams to empathise with customers, they first have to know how customers are feeling and examine that across all channels equally.

  • Get your agents together to share their stories and experiences to look for common themes.
  • Combine this with a conversation review service to examine the conversations your AI assistant is having with your customers, and you’ll have facts and figures as well as more emotionally charged insights to go on.
  • Use everything you learn to show your customers how well you understand them, and so, know exactly what they need.

Give your teams empathy statements to work with

Empathy doesn’t come naturally to everyone, but you can learn how to show it. To give your teams a head start, introduce empathy statements they can use when they’re assisting customers:

  • Thank you for sharing that with me.
  • I hear you.
  • I understand you can’t do X when you don’t have Y.
  • You’ve had a lot to contend with.
  • That makes sense.
  • Let’s work through this together.
  • I want things to be better for you.
  • I can understand how disappointing/upsetting/frustrating that is.
  • I can see why this is a problem.
  • I get it.
  • I’m glad you got in touch so we can fix this.
  • Tell me how I can make things better.
  • You’re right.
  • I would have asked the same question.
  • I appreciate your patience here.

These are all statements conversation designers naturally programme into AI assistant responses, so the customer feels heard and understood. Your teams should be no different in embedding these kinds of empathic statements into the language they’re using with customers daily.

Track customer satisfaction scores

Where customer service teams typically have targets to meet using frameworks like Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), there are a few key customer goals vital to your success and customer satisfaction sits top of the list. Track metrics like Net Promoter Score (NPS) or Customer Satisfaction Score (CSAT) to see how your customers respond to your commitment to empathy and if it helps improve these metrics over time.

Be sure to praise the success when your scores go up 🎉

How companies fail to achieve empathic customer relationships (and what can you learn from their mistakes)

“Designing an emotionally aware organisation is increasingly becoming a topic at the top of the board room agendas,” says Need to See It Publishing (NTSI). They say Gartner found “companies that deploy empathy significantly outperform those that don’t, in terms of sales and profit” and Forrester reports “consumers are gravitating toward the brands that prioritise people over profits”.

Showing you understand your customer helps open the door to the start of a great relationship, but it takes work to achieve it. Companies can fail immediately by simply not making the effort.

When you recognise how vital empathy is to customer service and acknowledge ways to support your teams to achieve it, your customers can come to depend on your superior service.

Nurture empathy across all your teams

Many companies will simply rely on their team members who naturally show strong empathic traits, but when that person is suddenly unavailable, where does that leave you when there’s a difficult customer situation to deal with?

Journalist Helena Posniak writes for E&T: “Everyone – apart from some psychopaths – can learn to empathise, say neuroscientists. In fact, some primates demonstrate empathy, and even young babies show basic levels of empathy”.

Companies increase their chances of building empathetic customer relationships across the board by knowing how empathy works and teaching their teams to actively practice it.

Use AI as a bridge not a barrier

With so many customer service tasks now being handled online, whether it’s through traditional digital channels like email or more time-efficient channels like live chat, it’s become easier for companies to dehumanise customer care practices, but technology shouldn’t become a barrier to communication. It’s another channel for open communication to bring you closer to your customers.

“If it feels strange to outsource a kinder, gentler response to a machine,” says Zendesk, “rest assured. According to our research, 71 percent of customers already believe that AI will help to make customer experiences more empathetic. The trick is knowing when and where to use artificial empathy to elevate, not degrade the experiences you deliver.”

Using a next-gen AI assistant is an opportunity to hear from people more often, at any time of the night or day, about anything they want, using any channel.

Support your customer service teams

In a 2022 study, the Institute of Customer Service found 60% of the customer service workers they interviewed had “experienced hostility in the past year” and 36% of those had “been threatened with violence”. Yet companies don’t always appreciate the toll this can take on their teams. This means agents don’t get the support they need to cope with the demands of the job and so the job becomes unenjoyable. Any negative feelings naturally start to seep into their communications with customers, and that puts a stop to any positive relationship that could be formed.

Showing empathy for the experience of your team members is just as important as it is to show empathy for your customers.

A study by two Australian universities found “when employees believed they had the ability and authority to solve customer problems, they experienced positive emotions such as relief, satisfaction, and excitement”. Not only that, but agents who “were thanked or recognised for delivering good service had enhanced feelings of self-esteem and a sense of pride,” all of which can only be a good thing for team morale. Don’t forget: Your teams can also use your AI assistant to source information, so they’re never out of the loop and have an accurate resource to rely on whenever it’s needed.

Hire people with high emotional intelligence

The more people you have on your team with great empathy, the easier it becomes to practice it. People with high emotional intelligence (EI) are also good at managing their own emotions while also handling those of your customers. The problem is, as Harvard Business Review (HBR) points out, companies “struggle to assess EI when hiring” because they haven’t been taught how to do it. They rely on expensive personality tests or ask people to judge their own EI competency, which isn’t helpful if the candidate isn’t particularly self-aware. They offer two solutions to this problem:

  1. Get references and talk to the people who supply the reference, so you can ask them directly about the person’s EI.
  2. When you interview a candidate, ask them about their experiences handling customer enquiries in both positive and negative situations, but go into great detail to fully understand how they make decisions and why they make the choices they do.

Set an example by leading from the top

It’s easier for customer service teams to work on empathy if they see a commitment to achieving it is evident throughout the business, from top to bottom. If you’re sensing some resistance, try showing your teams how it’s done and they might feel much more confident to follow your lead.

Using AI to master empathy in customer service

Using AI to personalise customer experiences is one of the biggest opportunities available to customer service leaders right now to improve support and drive innovation while you’re at it.

Launch an AI assistant and you can immediately improve your processes by making them more efficient and putting your customer front and centre of your service:

  • Instant replies to queries
  • The same, accurate information across all channels, whether it’s online, offline or in-store
  • 24-hour omnichannel service delivery
  • Efficient self-service so customers can easily find answers for themselves

In customer service, there’s no need to pretend your AI assistant is a real person ― 82% of consumers are more comfortable with digital messaging as a result of the pandemic. Instead, focus on building strong processes that prioritise customer care.

Also use empathic language when you’re writing or editing responses for your AI assistant to use, and have your teams match that commitment on live chat, over the phone, and every other channel you use.

Eliminate poor customer experience

In customer service, whether you’re looking to follow best practices in B2B or B2C, one of the most empathetic things you can do for any customer is appreciate they simply want the service or product they were sold without any hiccups, issues or delays. They don’t want to be sitting in call queues, speaking to several different departments or agents, waiting for days for a reply to an email, getting the wrong information, forced to make contact during core hours or through one isolated channel, or be unable to find answers to their queries for themselves.

Using a next-gen AI assistant helps show you understand all the things that drive customers crazy and have every intention of eliminating them.

Get to know what your customers want

McKinsey found 71% of consumers now expect personalisation and, what’s more, 76% of those customers “get frustrated when this doesn’t happen”.

Nobody wants to be treated like a statistic. Failing to get to know your customers better and understand what they want can quickly make a dent in both your popularity and profits, since the McKinsey report also shows “companies that excel at personalization generate 40 percent more revenue from those activities.”

An AI assistant can remember every preference for every one of your customers, even if there are tens of thousands of them ― forever, to provide the strongest customer support that’s tailored to their every need, every time.

Create a reliable feedback loop

Emotional intelligence expert, Josh Feast, says “we make that decision about whether we’re well-treated by the way we’re interacted with not by what people say. Customer service agents can follow exactly the same script… milliseconds between how fast they respond to a query of yours will make you decide whether you’ve been heard.” That makes it difficult to get reliable customer feedback since it might not be your information that’s the problem, but the way it’s delivered by a live agent.

An AI assistant gives you access to real-time customer feedback, so you can rapidly improve your omnichannel customer experience. In an AI chat scenario, every customer asking about the same topic gets the exact same response in the flow of an automated conversation, every time, so it’s easy to get feedback on this and see where improvements can be made. You can also use sentiment analysis for a real-time sense of customer feeling around the service they’re receiving.

Use everything you discover to improve customer experience across every channel.

Make a marked impact on customer service

“Emotionally connected customers not only generate greater value, but in every interaction become more and more convinced that ‘this company gets me,’” says Harvard Business Review. There’s every reason to strive to be that company your customers speak so highly of, using AI as your ally.