The Power of Empathy

Back in university we did a case study in one of my business courses. I don’t recall the class, and I don’t recall the names of the people in my group. I do recall however, the conclusion that was drawn from our exercise.

Companies that truly care for their customers are generally more profitable than those that don’t.

A recent experience took me back to this study. It also led me to reflect on my most recent experiences as a consumer, and ask the question, Does the customer matter?

About a year ago, I purchased a set of couches, and pretty much from the get go I have been having issues. They are recliners. Within the first month, one of them started to squeak when reclining back. We had to call the ‘customer service’ department who advised that they would have to send out a technician. The technician would only be able to come in between 6am-9am on a weekday, and likely not for another two weeks.

“I’m sorry sir, this is just the way it is…..”

So, ok….I wait the two weeks and a technician comes to “inspect it”. He goes back to his truck and brings back some silicone spray, flips the loveseat over and starts to spray the inside/underneath and says “that should do the trick”.

“Are you sure you can just flip it over like that?” I ask him, as I swear I hear a crunch on the left side. “Oh yes, not a problem.” is the reply that I get.

There is no more squeaking…..but….something feels off….it feels as though one of the recliners on the love seat is lower than the other. But the service man says that he is only there for the work order regarding squeaking. He tells me I would have to call in again, to the customer service department if I wanted that looked at.

I forget about it….

Some time goes by, and it’s becoming more noticeable that one of the recliners on the love seat, the cushion seems to be losing support.

Guests are over, and they experience the same thing…..

So I decide to call – go through the same motions – but this time a week later – the same repairman is at my door!

(Like are you kidding me….you couldn’t take a few minutes to check out what I was saying last time buddy? – what are you thinking Aleem, it’s all about the billables these days)

So he comes in, and looks at the couch for all of 30 seconds and concludes that it’s “wear and tear” and before I can even get a word out, he’s out the door……

So at this point I’m extremely miffed….call the customer service people back and insist they send out another repairman/inspector or whatever the heck the person calls themselves on that day.

I’m told that this is the closest agent in the area, and they will “see what they can do”.

SO, a week or two later, they arrange for another visit….and you guessed it…’s the same guy!

BUT, this time…..he “agrees” with me, but he can’t take the couch in for repairs….he has to call it back in….and they have to send out a truck.

(What’s your truck for then buddy?)

SO ANYWAYS…..we finally get the loveseat out…..not even going to get into the details about the guys who came to pick them up, and how they were startled at the “obvious issue with the foundation of the loveseat”… takes about a week to repair…..they arrange for a time to return it….tell us to be home between 2-4pm…..don’t show up until almost 9pm.

I don’t blame the drivers….it was the hottest day of the year, and it sounded like they had had a heck of day.

So the couch is delivered…..and seems reasonably comfortable…..the next morning… I’m getting ready to leave the house for the day…..I notice a huge tear on the side of the loveseat, with stuffing sticking out!

I can’t believe it. So I call the customer service department again….have to wait on hold for 20 minutes…..the person I get has the audacity to ask me if this tear was there the night before, or if I had torn it between 9pm yesterday evening and 830am “today”.

Oh boy, did I lose it on that guy… at this point, I can sense the fear in his voice…..he’s not sure what to do….I’m telling him that I don’t want these couches anymore…..

So what does he do? He puts me on hold for 10 minutes, and comes back and says he will transfer me to a manager. I get transferred over to someone’s voicemail – Not sure if it’s a manager because the voicemail greeting does not indicate that….and then I get cut off.

So now I’m even more angry…..and I have to call back to ensure that this concern has been put on record and addressed……well, it’s a good thing I called…..because there was no record……

So – now I have to explain it to this other guy…..who assures me he will send an email to a manager, and that is the “best that he can do”.

No further explanation, other than to call back if we don’t hear back from anyone for 72 hours.

I am a customer, I have just told you about my terrible experience…..and that’s all you got for me?

I’m absolutely livid at this point……

Guess what… call……

So, I get back on the phone and I’m ready to tear a strip into the poor customer service agent.

My call is answered by a lady….and just as I’m getting ready to go into my tirade after explaining the first bit of the ordeal I have had to deal with….I’m stopped in my tracks.

The customer service agent said she is sorry that I have had such a bad experience, and although she cannot do anything about what has happened, she can do something about improving the experience going forward……

A little bit of Empathy from the person on the other end of the phone…..and that’s all it really took to restore some faith in me as a customer.

This experience really inspired to me to reflect. Even in today’s go go world, where everything is automated, and the public wants it and it wants it now, the brand….any brand….is only as strong as its representatives.

My reflection lead to the following thoughts and conclusions:

Empathy is an important component of Customer Service.

Empathy is the ability to put yourself in another’s shoes and walk a mile. It is the ability to imagine what it might be like to experience what the other person is.

This representative, that I reached, let’s call her Susan, knows a little something about empathy. Susan empathized with me by imagining how she would feel if she had gone through the same experience as me, say with her mortgage, and an unpleasant experience. She knows nothing about her mortgage – this was not her area of expertise. Susan figured she would have to call the lender’s customer service, or her mortgage broker, and figure out why the bank has not taken her mortgage payment out, and then called her to tell her she’s missed a payment. That’s empathy.

Empathy is essential in dealing with customers who are upset or angry.

It’s important to understand how the human brain works when we are highly emotional. The human brain is a complex organ, and scientists don’t yet comprehend all of its mysteries. But we are beginning to map many of the brain’s functions and systems. We know that the Limbic System of the brain is both a primitive and powerful brain component. It is primitive in that it is evolutionarily no more sophisticated than the brain of an amphibian, such as a turtle. This “Turtle Brain” controls emotions in humans, and is very powerful. When someone is emotional, they are being controlled by their Turtle Brain.

When you are upset or very angry, are you able to think clearly?

Generally, we are not able to reason well when we are in the throws of extreme emotions. This is because the Turtle Brain is a bully, and completely dominates the other part of the brain, called the neocortex.

The neocortex is the part of the brain that governs our reasoning ability. It takes effort on the part of the emotional person to wrest control of the brain from the Turtle Brain and let the neocortex, or rational brain, take over. The passage of time helps this process, along with deep breathing and other means of self-regulation.

As service providers, we can calm an angry customer by hastening the process of passing control of the customer’s brain from the limbic system (Turtle Brain) to the neocortex (rational brain). The technique that accomplishes a transfer of brain power is empathy. Expressing empathy to an upset person absorbs the emotion, allowing the agitated person to think more logically.

Empathy Absorbs Emotion!

What’s in it for you as a service provider to empathize with a customer?

Empathy can actually make the interaction with the emotional customer go more quickly, and with improved results. Empathy allows you to connect with your customer, establish rapport and create a sense of teamwork between the two of you. Once the customer realizes that you are on their side, they are more willing to work with you to fix the problem, or will allow you the time to resolve the issue. This makes the resolution process go more quickly because you are working together with the customer. And, the cooperation of the customer ensures that the resolution will be better.

Empathizing is easy to do, once you know how. You can verbally express empathy with short statements that create the rapport that you seek with customers. Simply put, you acknowledge the emotion that the customer feels. Here are some examples of empathy statements:

  • “Gee, that’s awful. Please let me help you with that.”
  • “You know, I’d be upset, too, if that happened to me.”
  • “That is really frustrating. I can understand how you feel.”

Be Sincere!

Warning: If the above statements are not delivered with sincerity in both your face and your voice, you run the risk of appearing to mock the customer, and the situation will become even worse than if you said nothing!

You know what to do once you’ve empathized with the customer. You proceed to do what you do best, which is to fix the problem for the customer.

Thank you “Susan” for your empathy.




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