A lot of people think customer service is about fixing things and solving problems. That’s not the whole story. The real goal of customer service is to provide a positive experience that people associate with your company. Solving a customer’s problem often achieves this, but that’s not always within the control of a service rep. Some cases get escalated, and others were never really product problems to begin with.

The Value of Empathy

What is true 100% of the time, however, is that when a customer reaches out for service, she wants to be heard and feel like the person on the other end of the conversation truly understands what she’s going through. Customer service can’t always deliver solutions, but it can always deliver empathy. The impact of customer emotions cannot be ignored. Remember that customers who contact support have tried everything else themselves already. As a live service rep, you are their last hope before they give up—maybe on their problem, maybe on your company. Translation: don’t start every conversation by asking if they’ve searched for help articles.

We’ve all had bad customer service experiences, and (hopefully) we’ve all had great ones too. There are a number of differences, and they all stem from the presence of empathy. Roughly 80% of the time, service reps don’t even ask for a customer’s name. That’s an easy way to say, “I don’t care about you or your problem.”


Great service—the kind where a service rep exudes personality, makes helpful suggestions beyond your initial question, and celebrates your success with you—happens because the rep actually cares about the outcome. She knows what you’re going through and understands the impact the problem is having on your day. Empathy from the rep aligns her with the customer’s pain, so she’s motivated to do all she can to ease it.

By putting yourself in the shoes of a customer, you also get context that helps you do your job: “I know how painful it can be in a meeting and realize halfway through that there’s an error in the report. Did you export it as a PDF the night before or pull it up fresh on your mobile device?”

Empathy Is Teachable

Some people are naturally more empathetic than others, and it’s absolutely something you should hire for in customer service. However, it is also teachable. Since empathy ultimately comes from understanding another person’s experience, the easiest way for a rep to develop empathy is to use the product. Focus groups, customer visits, or customer on-sites are also great ways to see through the eyes of a customer.

Another way to capture the customer’s perspective is through stories. Looking through old cases can be helpful but daunting. Keep a catalog of the real highs and lows. Share your best success stories and make sure to highlight the before-and-after status of the customer. Don’t just provide the facts and figures about usage or account value. Paint the complete picture of a customer who had tremendous difficulty understanding their conversion rates and eventually transformed into a high-growth, data-driven sales and marketing team. It’s always helpful for reps to remember why people use your product in the first place.

Listening is another critical element to empathy. Service reps should be able to pick up on a customer’s tone and sense the level of stress, anger, or frustration. Active listening also helps reps ask better questions as they search for the underlying cause of pain. Following a talk track is another surefire way for a rep to signal that the customer is not most important. The more room a service rep has to speak comfortably, the more natural the exchange becomes. Eventually, it’s just two people in a conversation, and empathy grows organically from there.

Finish Strong

Studies have shown that people judge an experience based on its most intense point and its end. In customer service, that means ending each interaction on a high note so customers come away feeling great. That may mean solving the problem, it may not. I have personally had experiences where the service rep was unable to accommodate my request, but I still came away with a good feeling because I know she did everything she could and she genuinely cared about helping.


When you show that you care, customers respond well and remember you positively. They carry that positive feeling with them the next time they use your product, or talk about you to their colleagues. You can’t always solve a customer’s problem, but you can always make them feel important.

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