How Empathy Affects Customer Service




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Recently, we have been diving into a plethora of topics surrounding the idea of customer communication and service jobs themselves. At the end of the day, it’s not only a necessity for most businesses but a necessity for life itself. Communication and empathy are things we simply cannot live without. Though the life of a hermit may sound appealing to some, it’s nearly impossible (at least for those that want to live a healthy existence). Therefore, building a strong foundation on how to handle it is crucial to both success and happiness.

In fact, BLS reported that about one-fourth of all employment in 2016 called for customer service skills. It’s that important. Most jobs will require at least a smidgeon of communication with customers and clients.

At its core, customer communication relies on the usage and understanding of empathy, both natural and forced. You simply cannot be good at working with clients without having an understanding of human emotion. Unfortunately, this isn’t easy for everyone. Some of us have a harder time relating to others, regardless of the causes for it. Therefore, finding employees with that natural ability is crucial to making a great team.

In this article, we will explore the importance of human understanding and how you can improve it amongst your customer representative team.

What Is Empathy

Before we can being waxing psychological, we must clearly define what empathy is, both in and out of the business front. Though we do not consider ourselves masters of the brain or human behavior here at Tier2Tek, we will throw our thinking hats in the ring, taking a stab at a colloquial definition.

Empathy is the act of understanding another’s point of view. It’s putting yourself in another’s place through imagination, allowing you to create an emotional acknowledgment of their specific circumstances. Through this, the imaginative party can help come to solutions that benefit both parties without selfishness.

Overall, this is not a concept that we have created as a species through emotional complexity and high-level consciousness. Most animals also display signs of emotional understanding. It is, by definition, a natural aspect of existence.

This is not to be confused with sympathy, though. Sympathy is the understanding that another is going through emotions and expressing condolences or pity. Sympathy does not require understanding the exact emotion the other is feeling, just understanding that they are feeling an emotion.

How Does It Directly Affect Customer Service?

Let’s say a customer has been waiting for their food at a restaurant. Despite being told the food would be ready in 20 minutes, they have waited for 40. They are upset. They have a tight schedule and are now extremely stressed.

On the other end, the kitchen is slammed. The staff is short due to someone calling out and they are attempting, with their best efforts, to keep up with demand. This is why the food is delayed.

The customer takes out their stress on the staff, and in a moment of unprofessionalism, the staff fights back. Now, both parties are funneling unkept stress toward one another. The customer notes that they will never eat at the establishment again.

What could have happened?

Though sometimes impossible to administrate, understanding could have smoothed the situation. The customer could have had empathy for the kitchen staff after being told of the labor situation. The kitchen staff could have had empathy for the customer’s late schedule. If both understood what each other was going through, tensions wouldn’t have risen. The restaurant wouldn’t have lost a customer.

Would the food have been made any quicker? No. But the customer wouldn’t have been as angry if both had empathy for each other.

But That’s the Problem…

In the above scenario, both parties needed to understand each other to reach the most amicable conclusion. But, unfortunate as it is, we can only control one side of the situation. We can only have empathy for the customer. We cannot, and often should not, ask for empathy from the other end.

Though the employee could have noted the situation and why the food was late, they cannot beg for empathy from the customer. They cannot expect it, either. Some patrons see the transaction as a transaction, dropping human cause and effect from the equation. And, as a service provider, you can only roll with this thought process.

The customer service worker (regardless of role) can only express empathy from their end. They can understand that the food is late and how that would make a customer feel. Then, they can accommodate accordingly. Whether this be through apologies, coupons, or free food is entirely dependent on the business, but the point still stands.

Though empathy cannot be forced on both ends, empathy from the customer service representative could have lowered the heat of the situation (if only slightly) helping keep the customer going forward.

Have We Strayed Away from Empathy?

We live in strange times. Unprecedented, even.

A striking pandemic crushed our world, causing us to bunker inside for over a year. Political tensions are higher than ever, with worldwide issues seemingly popping up at a moment’s notice. We, as humans, have fully dived into the realm of tech communication, lowering our daily in-person interactions and causing psychological effects that we will study for decades.

Point being: the way we thought about concepts like empathy just simply isn’t the same as it used to be. We must pivot from the norm, especially with how fast and loud our world is moving.

An opinion piece by Judith Hall and Mark Leary for Scientific American in 2020 noted:

“Whenever people are troubled or hurting or dealing with serious problems, they want to feel that other people understand what they are going through and are concerned. But opportunities to give and receive empathy feel less than adequate these days: decreased social interaction, online get-togethers, air hugs and masked conversations are not quite up to the task—and people are often so preoccupied with their own struggles that they aren’t as attuned to other people’s problems as they otherwise might be.”

— “The US Has an Empathy Deficit”

A Design Flaw

Though we can point to a decrease in empathy due to the increase in mobile communication, it doesn’t umbrella all of the blame. We, as businesses, are to blame for the ever-decreasing empathy, too.

As companies dealing with hundreds (or millions) of customers, we can find ourselves getting wrapped up in metrics and algorithms. Becoming obsessed with numbers takes the human element out of customer interactions, ultimately lowering the most basic of human elements, empathy.

Customer service departments have created and stood by metrics such as Average Speed of Answer (ASA) and Next Issue Avoidance (NIA). These metrics push the department to get as many situations and tickets handled, promoting speed over quality. The longer the customer is on hold, the worse. Meaning that actual conversations must move as quickly as possible.

It’s easy to see why this isn’t great for both human empathy building and customer service quality. If you don’t even have the time to figure out the customer’s problem, how can you come to a solution that makes everyone happy?

Then, as long as the customer doesn’t leave a negative review, the company takes the interaction as a win. But, according to Kolsky, 91% of customers who are unhappy with a brand will just leave without complaining.

Henceforth, while it’s understandable to only look at metrics (customers often become angrier the longer they wait on hold), it’s still important to find a balance between both. The perfect customer service team has empathy skills and efficiency. Therefore, we aren’t saying to get rid of these metrics. But maybe lower their importance, if only slightly.

How Empathy Affects Customer Service:

Though we’ve given a broad overview of how important empathy is to customer service and solving tense situations, there are a few more important things to point out in the correlation between the two. If your team is great at empathy and communication, a lot of customer-based positives will follow.

And customers are the most important part of the business. Right?

Here are ways that empathy boosts your customer service reliability.

Would You Buy From Them?

When discussing anything with any customer, it’s important to remember what it all means. Though helping a customer with an item they already bought is important, the main part of customer service is to get them to return, right?

Henceforth, the main point of empathy in customer service is asking the question: would you buy from yourself?

Let’s say, for example, you have an irate customer that has legitimate reasons for being upset. Maybe your staff messed up their order multiple times, being entirely the business’ fault. How this is handled is crucial for the return of the customer. So, put yourself in their shoes. How can you handle the situation that will make them want to return, despite the problem that occurred?

If you are apathetic and have an order issue, the customer has no reason to return. Thus creating a double-whammy situation. Why would they want to return if the service and product are bad?

When dealing with any customer service situation, good or bad, it’s important to remember the purpose. Would you be willing to come back if you were them?

Customers Want to Support the Right Business

On the more positive end of the spectrum, having great customer service and understanding is a bonus for business. Customers want to support stores they care for. If your staff is open, honest, and empathic, consumers are more likely to want to support and return.

65% of a business’s customers are returning. Don’t soil this, leaving your business with significantly less profit. Retaining existing customers has been shown to increase profitability by 25% to an astounding 95%.

Pushing sales on customers, bombarding clients that seem to be in a hurry, and not listening to buyer needs are quick ways to turn away further customers. Always provide the best service possible based on understanding the customer’s current wants and needs. This will lead to a future of prosperity!

Problems Are Easily Solved

How much quicker are resolutions made when each party attempts to see the other’s side? Exponentially.

But, as we noted, we are not psychologists. So, let’s move to the ones that are. Here we will quote a study from the Polytechnic Institute of Leiria titled Critical thinking, empathy, and problem-solving using a modern board game. You can find the entire study here.

Critical thinking, problem solving and stablishing empathic relationships are linked to the ability of decision-making and are some of the most important indicators for interprofessional and multidisciplinary efficient work in health teams [12]. In fact, being able to make the right decisions at the right time is a crucial part of leadership. However, sometimes making decisions under pressure in health contexts can be very challenging, so assertiveness should be worked, in order to avoid stressful situations that can lead to labor stress [13].

Decision-making and empathy are closely linked. If a representative has both skills, they should be able to see the ongoing situation and create a solution that makes everyone happy with proficiency. They are able to make executive decisions to alleviate the situation.

Sure, you can problem-solve and provide the customer with a solution without empathy, but it may not be effective enough to completely lower temperatures and ensure customer return. Remember the above statistic, not every upset customer reports negative reviews. If someone creates a solution without empathy, they may just be forcing a compromise instead of creating one that ensures a return.

Positivity Goes Forever

Positivity is contagious; it really is that simple. This saying goes past hypothetical thought and hippy mantras. While it is impossible to both research and quantify the transfer of emotional energy, it is a practice that has been implemented for the entirety of human history.

If you are around someone happy, do you feel happier? Exactly.

Empathic presence is the most important factor in customer service. If you keep a positive attitude and energy, tricky situations go over smoothly. Even if you fake a smile, fake it well. Being happy and positive will cause the customer to feel less hostile.

Positivity starts within yourself. We won’t ramble on about how to instill happiness in your life (more qualified sites like PsychCentral have done this better than we could). But, we can note how important it is to have customer service skills.

Take a deep breath, crack a smile, and treat the customer like you are happy to see or hear from them. This goes a long way.

Can You Teach Empathy to Employees?

We’ve hammered home the importance of empathetic skills in your customer service team, but can they be taught? If you didn’t hire employees with advanced and natural empathy, can you help them improve their ability going forward?

You can teach any dog tricks, but does it take an intangible ability to be empathetic? It truly depends. And, as a staffing agency, it’s a bit out of our pay range to decide if empathy can be taught. But there are ways to attempt to improve it amongst your team.

Ultimately, some employees have empathy but just don’t use it in a business setting. They may not have enough practice, causing them to think too logically during customer interactions. In that case, practice always comes first. But, here are a few ways to bolster the ability through training:

Employee Satisfaction Comes First

If your employees are unhappy, you can’t expect them to provide first-class customer service. If they aren’t happy, how can they make others happy?

Therefore, increasing empathy for customers starts with ensuring employee satisfaction. Which, ironically, requires empathy from you, the employer.

Excerpt from our article, How to Measure Employee Satisfaction – Gauge Your Workforce


Oftentimes, we find ourselves discussing the acts of labor as if workers are just pawns upon a board of production. We discuss productivity as if it’s the functionality or calculations of a well-oiled machine. Though, as employers and staffing agencies alike, it’s understandable to begin seeing the big picture as numbers and percentages, it’s important to remember that employees are complex humans with a wide array of emotions and motives.

Henceforth, if a worker is upset or unhappy with their job, it’s understandable for them to not produce as well as those that are satisfied. Though we can see the reduction in numbers and grow angry or administer reprimand, it’s important to remember that a lack of motive is to blame.

Employee disengagement cost the US economy an estimated $450-to-$550 billion last year alone. It’s not an idea to shrug off as ‘no one really likes to work‘. Workers that enjoy their job produce more. It’s that simple.

Henceforth, if your team is too unhappy to make customers happy, you have an entirely different problem on your hands.

Work On Listening Techniques

If you notice that your customer service team is lacking in the empathy department, hold a constructive meeting together. Discuss the idea of empathy in the workplace and ask them how they feel about it. Ask them how they make sure they implement empathy in their decision-making.

Ultimately, using empathy in the workplace is a skill that’s cultivated over time. You can boost this by getting everyone to discuss it and how they use it. Not only does this help come up with new ideas and examples, but it gets your employees to all flex those empathy muscles (building the overall strength for the future).

Talk about bad reviews or negative situations. Let them share their experiences. As a group, see if you can find ways to better handle them in the future. You can also always run through example scenarios or roleplay with workers.

Teach Empathy Statements

You can (and should) introduce the idea of empathy statements to your department. Overall, they are physiologically proven ways to simulate and show empathy. While not always the best tactic, for they can come off as sympathetic or robotic, they do help teach representatives of different ways to express and show empathy.

Empathy statements usually fall into a few categories:

  • Personal Pronouns: if you speak to a customer stating the pronoun ‘we’, you may make them believe they are only important as a source of sale, not a human. For example, if you say “we will work on that,” you may make them believe you don’t care personally. This lowers empathy. Always use personal pronouns when expressing empathy and care.
  • Active Verbs: you never want customers to think you are just talking the talk. Replace verbs with active ones to make them truly believe you are working on the issue. For example, say things like “I am going to send this to the manager to get it done immediately,” to show that it is actively being worked on, not just tossed aside.
  • Always Be Authentic: as noted, these tips help create further plans. They should not be a script that’s followed for every customer. If you repeat the same lines over and over, they will not be seen as authentic or empathetic. Always speak with honesty and always speak from the heart. Don’t just say the same script because it worked once.