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Best of ICMI in 2021 - #4: How to Coach Empathy

 Best of ICMI in 2021 - #4 


A week in the contact center rarely goes by without discussing how to inspire contact center agents to create more authentic connections with customers. We hear it loud and clear in customer satisfaction surveys ("The rep just didn't care, it was like talking to a robot!"), during call listening sessions ("Our agents hit the QA checklist, but their calls lack energy and don't make much of an impression."), or just walking the floor during a busy day.

Empathy is a skill every contact center employee can and should develop, and there are practical reasons that drive the need to create stronger employee and customer connections. Business guru Steve Covey describes one of the most compelling practical reasons: "When you show deep empathy toward others, their defensive energy goes down, and positive energy replaces it. That's when you can get more creative in solving problems."

It sounds counterintuitive, but taking the time to build authentic customer empathy is a direct route to faster, more efficient service.

Here are three essential components to coaching this critical skill so your contact center and customers can experience the benefits.

1. Less telling and more showing

The term "empathy" is unfamiliar to many team members, and developing and expressing true empathy isn't a skill that comes naturally to most of us, nor does it develop overnight. Get everyone in the contact center on the same page by training all team members about what empathy is, what it sounds like, what it does, and when it is most important. The academic work can be done in a classroom session, team meetings, or even knowledgebase articles, but the magic is in the coaching and practice, and this happens in groups, in side-by-sides, and during observation and feedback from managers and peers.

Describing empathy and its benefits only gets you so far. Coaching allows us to show agents how empathy feels when we incorporate it into our coaching conversations. It allows us to use our time together to share examples, demonstrate in role plays, and provide ongoing feedback reflecting successes and opportunities in connecting with customers. Through coaching relationships, we have the chance to create a culture of empathy, in which employees experience empathy, enjoy the positive effects, and then use it in their customer interactions.

2. Focus on feelings in your coaching conversations

Empathy isn't about offering the correct answer – it's about creating the right feeling. During coaching, focusing on feelings helps agents see common frustrations from the customer's viewpoint to spur a more effective, authentic human response.

In this example, we'll consider a common scenario: a caller's health insurance is denied while they're at the doctor's office.

  • What do you think the customer is thinking? (“I can't believe this is happening here – how embarrassing. This isn't what I need right now. How much is this going to cost? I don't have the money for this!”)
  • What does the caller say or do? (Irritable and short. Rushed. Short on details. Blames us.)
  • How is the customer feeling? (Embarrassed. Stressed. Frustrated. Overwhelmed.)
  • Now is a great time to pause and ask the agent to identify with this customer.
  • Have you ever felt stressed? Frustrated? Overwhelmed? Were you at your best when you felt this way? Have you ever snapped at anyone when you were stressed or said something that wasn't very nice?
  • Can you think of a situation where someone helped you turn the situation around when you felt this way? What did they do?
  • How do we want this caller to feel at the end of this interaction? (Reassured. Confident in the answer. Able to understand the next steps needed.)
  • What could we say to or do for the caller that will increase these feelings? (Express concern with their predicament. Reassure the caller that you are there to help. Clearly explain options and confirm next steps. Avoid jargon, explain in user-friendly terms. Confirm the expected outcome and what to do if that doesn't happen.)

This collaborative approach guides the coach and the agent to think more deeply about customer interactions in terms of feelings and building connections, rather than just on coaching to the factual answer or a formulaic approach to empathy. It keeps the conversation focused on exploring opportunities to build stronger connections with customers in the future, rather than on spending valuable coaching time discussing the details of where the agent fell short.

3. Use more carrots and fewer sticks

It's not enough to add "display empathy" to your QA form and let agents know if they did it right or wrong. The human connections we want to build in our coaching and customer interactions rely on building agreement and assuming positive intent. These are in direct contrast to finger-pointing, point-deducting, and highlighting flaws. Try some of these ideas to create incentives for the connection-building behaviors you want to see:

  • Create a “good vibrations” wall in the contact center, in OneNote, or in a dedicated communication channel like Slack or Yammer for employees across the contact center, to share when we've successfully created positive connections with customers.
  • Develop an award that rewards and recognizes our empathy heroes and highlights the benefits of creating stronger, more authentic customer connections.
  • Invite empathy heroes to mentor new hires and share the empathy-first culture and mindset with them.
  • Share customer interactions weekly to help employees see how small steps toward building connection with customers can change a customer’s demeanor and shift the direction of the call.

An authentic empathetic connection is never rote, automatic, or scripted. Empathy requires us to listen to another person, really see them, and identify with their feelings, struggles, and humanity. If you walk into that coaching conversation with a checklist, it's doubtful you'll get the results you want, but if you believe in the transformative power of human connection and empathy – you might just transform your coaching – and your customer interactions.