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Building Empathy For Your Customers

By Sanya Weathers

Someone once asked me for my philosophy of community management. I said, “Treat customers as I want to be treated.” That’s it. No buzzwords, no B-school thesis assignments. It’s easy to remember on a crazy day when problems are flying overheard and splattering your desk, and it’s the one method that can be applied to every possible situation you might encounter.

The only requirement is basic human empathy.

This is, of course, trickier than it sounds. Empathy is not a skill emphasized by the internet, schools, the media, the entertainment industry, or pretty much anything a human being is likely to encounter. It cannot be taught by lecture or instructional pamphlet. Anyone with the rudiments of human empathy will have it eroded by the reality of front line customer service.

But it isn’t just customer service people who need training/refreshing in customer empathy. Designers need it. Decision makers need it. People who have been completely removed from reality by virtue of too much sycophantic behavior or too much money especially need it. Here are a few tips for introducing empathy to your staff:

–    Use the product as a customer. Go through account registration. Create a profile. Roll a character, do a quest, send friend requests, whatever. Do it outside your network, on a crappy internet connection, when you should be doing something else. Take note of the points where you get annoyed or bored.

–    Related: Use the product customer support as a customer from an account that isn’t marked as an internal account. Try the FAQs, the knowledge base, the human support. Take notes, but not names (unless it’s to recognize outstanding examples of awesome service). This isn’t a “gotcha” exercise for your team– this is about putting yourself in a customer’s shoes.

–    Call your own tech support line from a number the team won’t recognize. See how long you sit on hold. See how you’re spoken to when no one knows you’re Important. Feel for yourself the joys of being asked if your computer is plugged in. (Yes, this is a reasonable question if your target market is not technology-savvy. This is a stupid question to ask if you’re running a niche-market internet game requiring top of the line machines. Please don’t copy and paste tech support scripts that you find on the internet, except as a framework.) Have every member of tech support do this, both as empathy training for the callers and battle hardening for the staff. They say doctors make the worst patients… but nothing beats a tech support person calling tech support.

–    “If I were you.” Before responding to a customer, make sure the first thing in your head is a response that begins with “If I were you.” You don’t have to say it out loud, though you’ll often find that doing so helps, especially in emotionally fraught situations. But if you do no more than think it, you’ll find it gets you into the right frame of mind to solve a problem without being condescending or rude: “If I were you, I’d probably be pretty angry.” “If I were you, I’d be confused, because I wouldn’t have any way of knowing the background.” “If I were you, I’d be insulted.”

You need to make it personal for yourself in order to give personal service.

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