Encouraging Empathy in Contact Center Agents

Empathy is “the understanding and sharing of the emotions and experiences of another person.” When a caller explains a problem to an agent, and the effect that problem has had on them, the caller’s first priority is always a solution, but an empathetic response can also go a long way toward repairing that customer relationship. 

Here is the thing about empathy – like a great singing voice or a quick pass release in a quarterback, it is something a person either has or doesn’t. It can be trained to an extent, and it can even be faked to an extent, but true empathy for the plight of others, especially strangers, comes from within. 

It is certainly a valuable quality in a contact center agent, but one that can be difficult to identify in the hiring process.  Asking an applicant if he or she is an empathetic person will always generate an enthusiastic “Oh, yes!” even if they are not sure what the word means. 

One way to find out may be to ask applicants about a time when they were on the receiving end of poor customer service. Inquire how that made them feel, and how they would have handled the situation differently if the roles were reversed.  

Is empathy a fair expectation for contact center agents? Even the most naturally empathetic person can become less sympathetic after hours of listening to angry, sad stories. These are the situations where empathy training can make a difference. It can’t create something that isn’t there, but it can teach techniques to sustain it, especially when an agent’s performance management and rewards are tied to this behavior. 

One final thought about empathy – it tends to flourish in organizations from the top down. When call center managers and supervisors have empathy toward not just customers but agents and coaches and trainers, it becomes a part of the fabric of the company and is more likely to be shared by those on the front line of customer communication.