by Marianna Pascal

Marianna conducts regular public workshops with STTS Training.
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I recently had an unpleasant encounter with a sales clerk at a shoe store. She was serving me while I tried to find the right size of a gorgeous little pair of red pumps. As she was serving me, she answered a personal phone call, and I was left waiting while she joked around on the phone.    
I called the company's customer service hotline and found myself complaining to a very polite and professional young man.  He listened to my feedback and in a very courteous voice, and then he said that he would make out a report and that someone from the company would get back to me.  After hanging up the phone, I was left feeling dissatisfied, irritated and frustrated.

How is it that such a well-mannered young man could leave me feeling dissatisfied? Well, quite simply, the one thing that I wanted to hear in that conversation, was not said. What I wanted to hear was that he understood my feelings – that he felt sorry that I felt bad. I wanted his empathy.
When a stakeholder is upset enough to contact us, we often feel that courtesy and a promise to take action is enough. But is it?

Let's imagine for a moment that you live in a house with a pretty flower garden outside, flowers you have planted yourself. Now, imagine that one day, see your neighbour's young son trample across the garden, stepping on all your flowers.  You have no bad feelings toward your neighbour, but you want her to know so that this won't happen again. 

So, you knock on her door, and in a warm voice you tell your neighbour what happened. Now, if she simply says in a polite tone, "Thank you for telling me. I will talk to my son about that," would you not feel somewhat angry? Would you not feel that she should have aplogised on her son's behalf?
Now, in her defense, let's imagine that she wants to talk to her son and get all the facts before deciding whether her son was in the wrong or not. In other words, she wants to withhold her apology until she has more information. Fair enough. But would you not expect, at the very least, that she show some understanding of your misfortune, some empathy toward how much trouble this incident has caused you with having to replant all your flowers?

Empathy is more than politeness. It is the art of reducing someone's upset by letting them know that their feelings are understandable and 'right'  for this situation.  It's showing an unhappy person that you, as a fellow human being, can feel what they feel.
Then why do we avoid empathising? We avoid it because we confuse empathy with admitting wrongdoing. We fear that by acknowledging a customer's angry feelings, we are blaming ourselves and shaming our company.

So how can we empathise with customers' negative feelings without admitting wrong doing. Here are two ways:

Say 'I'm sorry to hear that' – then refer to  the customer's experience

By framing your apology this way, you show that you are sorry that the customer is upset, that the customer had a bad experience – without taking the blame.  Look at the difference between the following pairs of apologies. In each pair, one apology blames the company.  The other simply shows sorrow for the customer's perceived experience:

1.    A:  I'm sorry that our food was not good.
      B:   I'm so sorry to hear that you didn't enjoy the food.

2.    A:   I'm sorry that our staff did the wrong thing.
      B:   I'm sorry to hear that you had a bad experience.

3.    A:   I'm very sorry to hear that you had to wait so long.
      B:   I'm very sorry that our service was so slow.

Can you see that the apologies in examples 1.B, 2.A and 3.A don't blame the company.  These apologies refer to the customer and his experience.           

Agree that the customer's experience shouldn't happen

You can agree with the customer's experience – generally. By agreeing in general, you empathise with the customer without actually talking about the specific incident.  That way you can empathise without blaming your staff. In which two of these short conversations does the customer service agent empathise without taking the blame?
1.    Customer:  Your staff should not have answered a personal call while he was serving me!
       Agent:         I agree. He was wrong to answer a personal call while serving you. 

2.    Customer:  He made me wait for 30 minutes! I shouldn't have to wait so long!
       Agent:        You're absolutely right. Customers should not have to wait for 30 minutes.

3.    Customer: I called five times.  No one answered the phone!
       Agent:       I can understand how you feel. It's very frustrating when you don't get an answer.  

Can you see how in examples 2 and 3, the agent avoids blaming staff from his company because he doesn't have enough information yet. But, he still manages to show the customers that he understands the caller's feelings.

A happy ending

So, let's go back to my call to customer service complaining about the shoe store sales clerk who answered a personal call while serving me.  The agent could have told me that understood my upset – and that he too would feel angry if a staff made a personal call while serving me. He could have agreed that customers should always have the full attention of the staff serving them.

Would I have gone back there for my next pair of shoes? Perhaps not. But would I have hung up the phone feeling valued, cared about and understood by the company. Definitely. I would have felt, not only satisfied – but impressed! 

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