The Power of Empathy

We often confuse sympathy and empathy, especially in customer service settings.  Sympathy is merely an acknowledgement of a concern whereas empathy means understanding the concern as though it were your own.  The ability of employees to display genuine empathy when customers are distraught is the sign of a truly customer-centric organization, and one that likely has excellent customer retention and loyalty.


“I do not ask the wounded person how he feels, I myself become the wounded person.”
― Walt WhitmanSong of Myself



For example, let’s say that you sit down to dinner at a very busy restaurant.  You wait too long to be acknowledged, someone who sat down after you gets helped before you, your order takes forever, and then it comes out cold.  Now the manager is making his way around the restaurant asking about each table’s experience.  When he gets to you, you are probably ready to explode.  Which would you rather hear post explosion?

  • I’m really sorry!  We have been super busy today, and we are short a couple of people.  Can I offer you a free desert for next time?
  • Oh my goodness, hearing about your experience makes me cringe!  I have had similar experiences when out to eat – and they definitely prevented me from ever going back.  A great customer experience is really important to me and I’d like to personally invite you back with the promise that I have heard your concerns and will take them to heart.  In addition, I’ve comped half (or all) of your meal tonight.  Here is my business card – please give us another chance to show you that this was not normal.  When you do come back, please ask for me personally.

Several things happen when empathetic behavior is employed: First, the customer will probably give you a second chance.  Second, when the customer shares her experience, it will have a positive twist that brings more business your way.  Third, you’ve contained the situation so that it doesn’t end up Tweeted, Yelped, BBB’d, or otherwise put on display for more customers to be lost.  I am not a mathematician, but I can promise that the comp provided is a fraction of the cost of the potential fallout from not handling the situation well.


“No one cares how much you know, until they know how much you care”― Theodore Roosevelt



Obviously avoiding issues like these is the goal, but realistically they will happen despite our best efforts.  The question is whether the organization is prepared.  Having both managers and front line staff that understand empathy in customer service and who are empowered to resolve situations with customers are signs of a customer centric and therefore, prepared organization.

Does your staff understand the value of empathy?  What are you doing to build a customer-centric organization?


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