Most people, when they think about customer service, think that the job of a customer service professional is to fix customers’ problems. And that’s the truth, but it’s not the complete truth.
Let me reason this with analogies.
A chef’s job is not limited to cooking a fish fillet. Her job is to package a delightful experience for every patron who walks into her restaurant.
A fireman's duty isn’t just about dousing an arson fire. His job is to ensure that city residents comply with the fire safety standards and equip them with contingency plans in case of a fire breakout.
Saying that a customer service professional is there merely to attend to a customer’s problems is an oversimplification.
A customer service employee has to have a host of skills including being a problem-solver. But that’s not the only or the most important skill they should have.
Empathy: The most sought-after customer service skill
If I had to rank a contact center employee’s skill in order of importance, it would look something like this:
A customer service rep without empathy is like a driver without a steering wheel. Empathy is what drives customer service. It’s the primer upon which all other customer service functions are built.
If you’re surprised to see the problem-solving skill at the bottom of the list, don’t be. It’s an important skill, but not an absolute one.
An individual customer service rep is not adept at solving all customers’ problems. Sometimes, the scope of the problem is well beyond their discretion to solve. So they report it to their higher-ups or another team that can better handle the issue.
Other times, they can just point the customers to a solution that doesn’t need fixing. In those situations, customer service reps are just facilitators of the right solution.
But when it comes to empathy, it’s not just a skill but an important personality trait every contact center agent should develop. A customer service rep without empathy can’t fix problems and can’t direct a customer issue to the right solution.
As a customer service agent, you may not always be able to deliver solutions, but you can always choose to deliver empathy. And that can make all the difference.
Below, let’s look at three examples to understand why empathy should be a non-negotiable skill in every customer service representative.
1. With love, from Zappos
You might not be surprised to see Zappos in the first place on this list because we hear about Zappos’ legendary customer service all the time.
Among many other instances of Zappos winning over customers, this one is the most moving — because it involves grief.
For a business to delight a customer while she’s mourning the death of a loved one, is pretty amazing.
The story begins when a customer, Zaz Lamarr, calls Zappos to return a pair of shoes she had shopped from their website. The Zappos customer care rep assigned to the issue takes her request and asks her to return the shoes in her possession to process the exchange.
No problem so far.
But the Zappos employee grows concerned when the expected shipping date comes and goes by—and she still doesn’t hear back from the customer.
She then decides to give a courtesy call to Lamarr to check on the shoes’ return status. That’s when she finds out that, in between putting the request and shipping the shoes back to Zappos, Lamarr had lost her mother.
So Zappos did what they are best known for.
They go out of their way to send a courier to pick up the shoes from Lamarr's address, at no cost to her. They also send a bouquet of white flowers to the mourning customer.
This story goes on to show why customer service is more than just processing refund requests and tracking shipping details. Empathy is what makes the world go around, especially when it comes to serving customers.
By the way, if you’re wondering, Lamarr also got the shoes exchanged to her liking.
2. Steal hearts, not shorts
Chubbies offers customer service experiences that sound just like their brand name — soft, fluffy, and delightful.
Once, one of their school-going teenage customers lost a pair of Chubbies to a local bully in the locker room. So he contacted their customer service department to see if they could send him a new pair of shorts.
Usually, a customer-centric brand like Chubbies would have stopped by fulfilling the request because it sends a strong message. No big deal — Lego, Nordstrom, and Amazon have all done this in their own respective rights.
But Chubbies went a step ahead and did something totally out of the blue — they arranged the customer to enroll in karate classes so that the next time he faced the bullies, he could protect himself better.
Now that’s sending some message against a social evil like bullying. And it’s also highly empathetic because what Chubbies did was more than fixing a customer problem.
They helped him with a bigger problem that wasn’t necessarily their concern, all because they walked in the customer’s shorts (get it?).
Here’s what Chubbies’ founder Rainer Castillo has to say about the importance of empathy in customer service:
“It’s really important to treat customers like friends. We bring customers to the forefront.”
When you have brands like Chubbies, who needs customer service? We would all love to be heard like friends.
3. Good brands stick to customers in their bad times
Rolex watches might cost a fortune, but the story that you’re about to hear from Timex is priceless.
Timex may not have the most expensive line of watches, but their heart is in the right place. This was evident when a long-time Timex customer, Michael O’Neal, contacted the brand’s customer service.
He had emailed customer service to check how much they would charge him to fix his damaged Timex watch. He also mentioned the circumstances that led to the damage — a nasty hit-and-run accident that broke not just his beloved Timex watch but also his smartphone and collarbone. Ouch!
The next morning, O’Neal got a response from Timex customer service that was like a healing touch to his wounds. Here’s what the email looked like:
Notice how O’Neal had not contacted customer service looking for sympathy. He was checking specifically to see how much he had to pay to repair his watch.
It could have been an easy thing for the customer service rep to quote a repair price, maybe at a discounted rate on compassionate grounds.
But instead, the customer service rep — particularly one Miss Judy Hill— minced no words in saying that O’Neal already had enough things on his plate to worry about. The last thing she wanted him to be bothered with was paying for the watch repair.
So she offered to do it for free if he sent it to them. That’s it — a seemingly small act of empathy that went a long way to deepen a customer’s loyalty toward the brand.
It’s about time that other brands take a lesson about empathy in customer service from Timex.