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How to Build Empathy in Customer Service with Examples

A detailed guide to building more empathy within not only your customer service organization but your whole organization.

8 min read

Excellent customer service is essential to the success of any business. But, in a world full of new technology and digital trends, it’s all-too-easy to overlook one of main ingredients: the human touch. 

So, how can you make sure to keep this personal element front and center of all your customer service interactions? Prioritizing empathy in customer service provides an answer. 

To help you find out more about exactly what is empathy in customer service and how to get it right, we’ve put together this article. Read on for a host of great customer service tips, tricks and some inspiring empathy in customer service examples.

What is the meaning of empathy in customer service?

Empathy in customer service is all about the ability to understand and share in the feelings of customers. In other words, to see things from their perspective.

A well-known idiom perfectly encapsulates this phenomenon: to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. In customer service, this means truly understanding what a customer is going through and how and why that makes them feel the way they do. 

Why is empathy important in customer service?

Empathy is so important in customer service because it’s tangible proof that you care about your customers. It shows that they aren’t just another number to you. This way, you can connect with them on a deeper level. The end result? Better customer service and a customer experience that feels more human. 

In a customer service environment empathy is a core part of understanding how to best deal with customers, too. What to say, how to say it, and even how specifically to go about resolving customer issues. Ultimately, it’s through an empathetic approach you can look beyond simply obsessing over metrics like response times, which can make things less human, and really understand how to make your customers happy. 

What is the difference between empathy and sympathy in customer service?

The key difference between empathy and sympathy in customer service is that while sympathy allows you to demonstrate that you understand the problem that a customer is facing, it doesn’t allow you to show that you understand exactly why the customer feels the way that they do about it. Empathy, on the other hand, does.  

And this is an extremely important distinction, because, as renowned Psychologist Dr. Brene Brown puts it, “Empathy fuels connection, sympathy drives disconnection.”

The reason for this? Sympathetic interactions focus on pity, while empathetic interactions focus on understanding. And pity is no basis for connection.

Benefits of empathy in customer service

There are many benefits that demonstrate why empathy is important in customer service. Some of the biggest include: 

  • Picking up on subtleties. Sometimes the most important things are the ones that go unsaid. An empathetic approach helps uncover tone of voice and body language cues that can reveal a lot about how the customer feels.
  • Better customer relationships. Customer satisfaction builds customer retention and loyalty. When customers feel they are understood, there’s a much higher chance of creating the kind of emotional bond that encourages customers to stick around. 
  • Getting empathy in return. Showing empathy yourself helps sow the seed. That way, when you need a bit of understanding yourself — when something goes wrong for example — you’re far more likely to receive it. 
  • Powers of prediction. With empathy in your arsenal, you get all-important insight into how interactions with customers are likely to pan out. That means you and your customer service agents are better prepared to deal with what comes up and resolve issues conflict-free, potentially heading-off any customer complaints down the line.

How to show empathy in customer service

When it comes to how to express empathy in customer service interactions, there are several things to bear in mind. Here are the most important customer service tips to consider:

Actively listen

The first step in any empathetic customer service interaction is making sure that the customer feels heard. This is particularly true for face-to-face customer interactions or those in call centers. There’s a good chance they’ll have plenty to get off their chest and it’s your job to let them do just that. Customers should be allowed to say their piece without interruption. Active listening means reflecting on what a customer is saying, understanding customer needs, and retaining that information for later use.

Use empathetic language

Statements that emphasize empathy rather than sympathy can help improve customer service interactions. Instead of “That must be difficult”, a more empathetic approach could be “I understand how difficult that must be”. It’s also worth personalising your approach, saying things like “I am working with the team to resolve this” rather than “the team is working on resolving this”. 

Pay attention to tone

Getting your tone right with a customer is crucial. Imagine if a happy customer rang up to say how pleased they are with a product only to be met with a ceaselessly morose customer service rep at the other end. Not good. So, take your cue from how the customer is feeling and respond in the most appropriate manner. 

Build a rapport

Common ground and shared interests provide opportunities to create bonds even when providing customer support remotely. Perhaps a customer mentions their favorite sports team and it’s your favorite team, too. Why not let them know? It also pays to greet customers by name and stay polite, genuine, and respectful in how you deal with them. Even something as simple as appropriate use of a customer’s name can have a positive impact.

Be curious 

No customer enjoys the experience of a know-it-all rep who thinks they understand the customer’s situation without even asking. That’s why it’s important to show an interest and follow up on what they have to say by asking relevant questions about a customer’s problem and how it came about. Not only will this reveal crucial information to help deal with the issue, it’ll make customers feel comfortable to open up as well.

Involve customers in the solution

Empathetic interactions are good for creating a sense of working together. That comes from asking for customer feedback and not taking anything for granted. What kind of resolutions best suit them? No-one is better placed to tell you than the customer themselves. So, ask the customer questions that help get them involved and they’ll feel far more empowered on the back of it. 

How to improve empathy in customer service

While understanding the importance of empathy in customer service is a good place to start, if you don’t know how to go about embedding it as a core value within your customer service team, then you and your customers will never see the true benefit.

To do this, empathy needs to be at the heart of company culture and customer service strategy. Here are some customer service tips to help you go about doing that:

  • Hire for empathy. Empathy is one of those customer service skills that just comes naturally to some people. It’s an innate ability that they possess and one that can be tapped into. Use psychometric testing such as StrengthsFinder to uncover candidates that have this trait. 
  • Train for empathy. Empathy may come naturally to some, but it is still a skill that you can train customer support team members for. This customer service training should also be a continuous process. Create a library of resources — videos and the like — showing empathy in customer service, and have a look through surveys and customer cases, identifying how a customer would be feeling based on the particular interaction. 
  • Be the customer. Take the chance to put yourself in your customers shoes — literally. Physically undertake the kinds of tasks your customers do. This could be something as simple as placing an order on your website or making a return, or even using functions like your faqs, knowledge base, and chatbots. As you go through the process, note which parts are difficult or challenging. That way, you will truly understand where customers are coming from, even when dealing with areas of automation and self-service. This approach can also help with customer success efforts by identifying opportunities for customers to get more out of products or services.
  • Start from the top. One of the best ways to create a culture of empathy is to model it internally. So, make sure leaders and managers use positive language and show that same level of empathy to employees themselves. This will then filter down and become a behavioral norm within the company and second nature to customer service representatives.

4 examples of empathy in customer service

There’s no doubt that connecting with customers on a human level is beneficial to your business. It’s great for creating loyal customers, after all. But what exactly does empathetic customer service look like in the real world? Let’s look at five examples of companies showing how to use empathy in customer service the right way.

1. Chewy understands the pain 

One great example of empathy in customer service comes from pet store Chewy. After losing his beloved Pug, Bailey, Joseph Inabnet decided to return an unopened bag of dog food he no longer had any use for. Not only did they offer their deep condolences and say they were happy to refund him for the food, they suggested that instead of sending it back, he could donate the dog food to someone else in need instead. But then things went to a whole new level. 

A couple of days later, a package from Chewy turned up. Inside was something that Joseph didn’t expect — a heartwarming card (letting him know that “If you ever need anything, we’re always here.”) along with an oil painting of his dog to serve as a lasting reminder of his furry friend. Joseph was extremely grateful to Chewy for showing this level of support in his time of need, and he was keen to show this gratitude in a Facebook post that later went viral. 

2. Lego rep to the rescue

If there’s one thing that’s sure to get a young kid upset, then it’s losing their favorite toy. Unfortunately, this is exactly what happened to Lego fan Luka Apps. Having spent his Christmas windfall on Ninjago character Jay XZ, very much against advice of his father, he decided to bring it along on a shopping trip only for the worst possible to happen. He lost it.

Devastated, Luka wrote to Lego asking if they would consider replacing his Ninjago, promising that he would take much better care of this one if he did. 

Lego customer support representative Richard really went the extra mile, telling Luke that he had consulted with (Ninjago character) Sensei Wu, and reporting back to him, saying: 

“I told Sensei Wu that losing your Jay mini figure was purely an accident and that you would never ever let it happen ever again.

He told me to tell you, ‘Luka, your father seems like a very wise man. You must always protect your Ninjago minifigures like the dragons protect the Weapons of Spinjitzu!’

Sensei Wu also told me it was okay if I sent you a new Jay and told me it would be okay if I included something extra for you because anyone that saves their Christmas money to buy the Ultrasonic Raider must be a really big Ninjago fan.

So, I hope you enjoy your Jay minifigure with all his weapons. You will actually have the only Jay minifigure that combines 3 different Jays into one! I am also going to send you a bad guy for him to fight!

Just remember, what Sensei Wu said: keep your minifigures protected like the Weapons of Spinjitzu! And of course, always listen to your dad.”

Unsurprisingly, such a touching response got a big reaction on social media and people were quick to heap praise on the Lego rep for demonstrating such an empathetic approach. 

3. United Airlines delays flight for dying mother

Losing a close family member is one of the hardest things we can face in life. For many, having the chance to say goodbye and be there in their final moments is one of the few small crumbs of comfort we get.

This is the situation that United Airlines passenger Kerry Drake found himself in. Making an extremely distressing situation even worse, he knew that missing his connecting flight would likely make the difference between seeing his mum or not before she passed away. 

And then the worst possible happened. His first flight got delayed, and Drake understandably broke down into tears in the face of this cruel development. The on board flight attendants quickly picked up on the situation and found out exactly what was going on, passing the information on to the captain, who in turn was able to radio ahead to the connecting flight. Its crew decided to delay departure so he could get there in time.

The end result was that Drake made it to the hospital to see his mother before she passed. Drake was so touched by the gesture that he wrote a letter of thanks letting staff know how grateful he was.

4. Next gets dresses specifically made for 6-year-old-girl with autism 

When a UK woman Deborah Price asked Twitter for help, she got more than she bargained for. Her friend’s daughter Elsie lives with autism and would only wear a particular dress — long and grey with a rainbow heart on the front. To help her keep feeling comfortable, she asked the Twittersphere if anyone had another one of these dresses — first bought from Next three years previously — and would be happy to send it to Elsie. 

Clothing retailer Next also saw the tweet and responded, explaining that although it no longer produced that specific dress, it would contact the supplier to see if they would consider making a few more. And Next really delivered. Price was amazed when a package from turned up and inside were three dresses in different sizes that Elsie could grow into. Not only that, but there was a lovely personal touch. The dresses had “Especially made for Elsie by Next” printed in gold letters inside.

Conclusion

Good customer service experiences stem from a place of empathy and emphasize what makes us human. But they don’t just happen out of the blue. It’s only those companies that truly put themselves in their customers' shoes and understand what it’s like to be in their position that can offer the best customer service interactions and create customer loyalty in the long-run.