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Can You Train Contact Center Agents in Empathy?

We already know most people hate calling tech support and even in basic customer service scenarios, consumers prefer to use self-serve options over contacting a customer service agent directly.  Regular readers of our blog know we frequently explore the factors that influence these choices and the overall customer experience and there’s no question agent empathy is a key factor for the success of the contact center-customer interaction.

While science suggests that almost all people have the ability to empathize (that deeply human trait that allows us to figuratively step into someone else’s shoes and understand what they’re going through,) it’s clear that some people are simply better at it than others. That makes us curious: can you train contact center agents in empathy? Neuroscience professionals suggest that people must have developed a foundation of empathy in childhood to strengthen this skill as an adult. We decided to explore how we can reinforce empathy in contact center agents.

Training empathy

Empathy Must Be a Core Value in Your Contact Center

Encouraging your contact center agents to deliver empathetic customer service is going to take more than a simple tactic like call scripting. It must go deeper. Why? Because the only script you’re ever going to hear that sounds authentically empathetic is on Broadway. Unless you’re hiring trained actors, the typical agent won’t be able to make a connection with a customer through a canned script.

Instead, you must empower your agents to empathize. When you create a customer experience strategy, it needs to embody the understanding that scripting or strict call flow processes rarely leave room for true empathy. A formal workflow process is necessary for risk mitigation and for reaching a solution quickly and efficiently. But in our opinion, great customer experiences happen when agents are empowered to make the best possible decision for each individual customer. Often, those decisions are born from empathy, which often occurs outside of the typical workflow.

How do you empower agents to make those empathetic decisions? By adopting empathy as a core value in your contact center. Make it a part of your recruitment, training, and onboarding processes; measure and manage it throughout your quality monitoring programs; seek it out and reward agents for it when they demonstrate exceptionally strong decision-making skills that result in customer satisfaction success stories.

It Starts with Understanding the Role of Empathy in the Customer Experience

Whenever we are implementing a new program, we build an agent profile that identifies the natural attributes that make an agent most likely to be successful in the specific role our client requires. Understanding the role empathy plays in the profile – and subsequent success – of each agent is critical and often counterintuitive for many people.

When we run workshops or presentations on recruiting for the contact center (Matt Dixon’s Harvard Business Review article, Kick Ass Customer Service, recognizes Blue Ocean as a leader in this practice), we usually ask the audience a scenario-based question. It goes like this: we have agents who take emergency roadside assistance calls. “Baby locked in car” is a common call that a roadside support agent deals with. Our agents are dealing with frantic, highly emotional parents on these calls. We can all imagine the stress of accidentally locking your baby in the car. On the other hand, we have tech support agents whose role is primarily taking tech support calls from teachers with highly technical classroom tools. These agents are typically helping teachers troubleshoot projector problems or resolve issues with complex interactive whiteboard software and hardware.

Of those two types of agents – emergency roadside assistance or tech support – which one depends most on empathy to create an excellent customer experience?  If you said the roadside agent, you would be… wrong. Here’s why: a highly empathetic agent is more likely to become caught up emotionally in the highly-charged distress of a “baby locked in car” call. It may, in fact, slow them down as they focus on the parent’s emotions and fears. On those calls, we need agents to calmly, accurately, and very quickly get through the call to dispatch help as fast as possible.  On the other hand, our tech support agents are highly skilled in their area of expertise and they are supporting end-users who do not possess the same expertise or understanding of the tools and technology. A good customer experience comes from those agents being patient and putting themselves in the teacher’s shoes – empathy in action, in other words.

Training for Empathy

In a perfect world, you’ve hired only agents who approach the world from a position of empathy that is appropriate to your requirements. But even in that case, you’re going to have to train them how to incorporate empathy into their role.  That comes down to communication.

The customer experience has two sides: the emotional and the logical. The logical wants to know what you’re going to do about their issue.  And most people are really good at this. It is easy to understand and it is easy to train. If this, then that.  So if a part is broken, the agent can order a replacement part. You train them in how to order the right part.

But empathy speaks to the emotional side of the equation – how the customer feels about the interaction, which is just as important and far less straightforward to train. We work with agents to help them understand that there is a direct relationship between the way a customer feels emotionally about the interaction and the way they will remember the interaction with the brand in the long term. Imagine that the same part that we replaced in the previous example is broken, but it is no longer under warranty and the agent cannot simply order a replacement. How the agent listens and communicates that information from a place of empathy can make the difference between acceptance and dissatisfaction.

At Blue Ocean, every agent undergoes empathy training as part of their foundational skills training. This includes active and effective listening, questioning skills, understanding empathy, issue ownership training, and dealing with emotion responses and triggers. The program also includes training in a three-step process for identifying emotional changes and understanding what causes emotional changes. We also invest in training that is related to positivity and healthy emotional states for the agents themselves.

Training includes instruction and practice in creating their own empathy statements for a diverse range of situations. In other words, the goal is not to have agents say “I understand your frustration” in any and all situations. The goal is to train agents to discern the primary emotion of their caller and verbalize that they understand what the customer is experiencing and why.

That may mean an agent is saying something like, “Mary, I understand that you’re disappointed because the part isn’t covered under warranty anymore, and I know this isn’t the outcome you were expecting. Let me provide you with all the options I have available for you now.” In this scenario, Mary knows she is understood and that the agent is there to help. The next step is to get to a resolution. There are a couple of key pivot points: first, the agent has to listen. What is Mary feeling? What is important to her? Is it the cost? Is it her equipment being out of service until the part arrives? Is she under pressure? Is she stressed? Or is she simply surprised? Or is this the straw that broke the metaphorical camel’s back of Mary’s day? That’s a lot for an agent to discern in the opening of a call – that’s where the natural aptitude for empathy comes in. The next pivot point is the agent’s ability to label the emotional trigger and link to the situation or cause.  We spend a half-day with every agent on communication skills, but it is practice that makes perfect and that brings us to managing the empathy aspect of quality.

Empathy Through Real Time Coaching

In the contact center world, we live and die by the metrics but many consider empathy to be one of those intangible qualities that is largely immeasurable. And yet, agents need a benchmark in even the most intangible factors to improve performance – and that includes empathy. So how do you measure the immeasurable in order to continue to develop contact center agents’ empathy skills?

Unfortunately, it’s no small task. It takes reengineering your quality monitoring process to include more than just the go-to metrics. As an outsourcer, customization is one of our core competitive differentiators. That includes quality monitoring – each program has its own unique quality assurance tools. But we also layer in Blue Ocean “empathy” measures for every client, and those factors are largely focused on whether the agent understood the customer and made a good decision for that individual customer’s unique circumstance.  Our quality monitoring process is deeply integrated with our agent coaching process. Through side-by-side coaching, agents are asked to self-evaluate on their perception of how the customer would rate their experience. In other words, we’re asking them to step directly into the customer’s shoes and assess the service interaction from that perspective.  This requires that the agent consciously empathize with the customer, and the more they do it, the better they get.

Fostering a Positive Workplace

In a recent study cited by the WSJ, neuroscientists have found a key correlation between stress and empathy. It may come as little surprise that when a person is stressed, their ability to empathize is compromised.

This is vital to understand, because the contact center workplace is often by nature a stressful place. The people whose calls are directed there are usually already stressed out, confused or angry. Holiday call volume spikes are another stressor, and so is delivering customer support in a natural disaster. That’s not to mention the natural stressors in any person’s personal and professional lives.

But the more stress, the less empathy an agent will be able to deliver. Which is why the contact center workplace must be focused on reducing stress. At Blue Ocean, that means lots of natural light and luxurious lunchrooms, smarter workforce scheduling and an overall emphasis on the employee experience.

So, Can You Train Contact Center Agents in Empathy?

In the end, we say the answer is a conditional “yes” – willingness to learn, a natural aptitude to empathize, followed by coaching and accountability are going to produce the best outcomes. The agent profile is critical and training provides a solid, consistent base for agents to build on.

This article was republished with permission from Blue Ocean

Topics: Agent