Empathy in Support

Empathy in Support

Empathy is high on the list of sought-after attributes for anyone looking to work in customer support. An immeasurable quality, empathy is also highly mutable, and broadly categorised into at least two or three different types.

And yet, it’s repeatedly rolled out in job advertisements, alluded to in resumes and grappled in interviews.

So, what is empathy, and what does it really mean to have empathy in customer service? Why is it important? Can you measure or test for it? And can you build it?

What is it?

Broadly speaking, empathy is a quality or skill that allows you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and experience their view of, and feelings about, a situation. It’s a very human quality, which allows us to relate to and form genuine bonds with those around us. 

It’s a word derived from the Ancient Greek for something along the lines of “in physical affection or passion or suffering”.

That sort of very real physical or strong emotional response to the feelings of another person is what psychologists would call affective empathy, or emotional empathy. This emotional response can range anywhere from general sympathy, pity and compassion for the other person, to very intense feelings of distress for others’ suffering

Wherever on that scale the emotional response falls, it has a draining effect on the wellbeing of the empathiser

This sort of empathy is also very character-driven and highly personal. This is who you are, and need to be, with your family and friends. You bring your whole self to the party, your life history, your personal biases, and your in-the-moment state of mind.

Empathy in customer service?

The draining effect of emotional empathy is not to be underestimated. On the front line in customer support, you just cannot afford to be that emotionally involved with your customers and their problems, all day, every day. Stress levels would skyrocket, and you’d burn out pretty quickly. 

This is where the second sort of empathy comes into play. Psychologists call it cognitive empathy. This is the ability to understand the mental state, perspective and emotions experienced by another, while at the same time maintaining a distinction between that understanding and actually getting emotionally involved. It’s a kind of detachment. I like to call it “empathic emotional detachment – the ability to take someone else’s perspective on board, in an understanding and rational manner, while maintaining a calm, appropriate and productively helpful demeanour. 

And, the good news is, this is a skill you can practise. 

And the even better news is, this kind of empathy is inexhaustible. You don’t burn out, because you’re not on the same emotional rollercoaster. You are the calm in the storm. You are the rock. You are steady and remain so. 

Why is it important?

Relating to customers as people, rather than problems, means you can leapfrog awkward interactions, build positive experiences even when you’re unable to fulfil a customer’s request, and build trust. And, the more you do it, the more skilled you get at all those things. 

You can even build a sense of predictive flow, learning how certain actions lead to certain reactions from your customer base. Predicting reactions is really key to improving the customer service experience. 

Can you measure empathy?

Honestly, I’m not so sure. The experience is so subjective. Reporting how empirically empathic you are as an individual is fraught with instrumentation difficulties. And any attempt to measure empathy as an outsider is nigh on impossible.

What you can measure, though, are the positive effects of a good empathic customer service experience. Measures of the number of customer interactions needed, the proactive follow up steps to an issue, quality rubrics, and, of course, customer satisfaction scores, are all solid indicators of a good level of effective empathy in your service agents. 

Can you build on it?

A resounding yes! Modelling the kind of behaviours that you need your agents to follow, both formally through training and rubrics, and informally through leadership and example, you can massively increase the right kind of empathic emotional detachment needed for a smooth, effective and trusted service organisation.

With your leadership, your team can deliver a human-centred service that is trusted to understand and deliver. Your agents can be a rock for your customers, whatever the weather. 


This article first appeared on my Linkedin publications in August 2019