With customer service becoming the new black, more and more organisations are making it a focal point of their business. They are stressing on their people the importance of great customer service. As a result of this and because customers are knowing their rights and becoming more demanding, empathy is one of the things that many organisations are placing on their list of values.
But do people really understand what the word empathy means? And how so many people can see empathy so differently, in creating exceptional customer experiences?
In the convenient online world we have found ourselves in, driven by virtual customer service and minimal human interaction, customers are craving greater connection. They want to feel valued…not just a reference number or case number, especially when the going gets tough and a situation turns pear shaped. This is where empathy is required. Empathy is a human quality that is not possible in a virtual world.
So what is empathy? Empathy is generally thought of as the sensitivity to, and understanding of, the mental states of others. But it is not quite that simplistic.
Although the emotional intelligence researchers are yet to agree on a precise definition of these constructs, a consensus has emerged that there are two types of empathy…‘affective empathy’ and ‘cognitive empathy’.
When it comes to customer service one of these is an excellent skill to own, but the other can be very detrimental to the well-being of customer service officers.
So, what is the difference between these two types of empathy?
‘Affective empathy’ also called ‘emotional empathy’ or ‘primitive empathy’ refers to the sensations and feelings we get in response to other people’s emotions, this can include mirroring what that person is feeling.
Affective empathy can leave you feeling sad, distressed or angry after talking with another person who is feeling sad, distressed or angry. It is the vicarious sharing of emotions between two or more people.
Affective empathy is often an involuntary, primitive, human idiosyncrasy. Most people experience a manageable level of affective empathy, but some people are more disposed to this type of empathy then others. You will find these people crying excessively when watching sad moves, feeling genuine anger at a friend’s distress over being cut off in traffic, or feeling real fear when being told about a frightful situation.
In a customer service situation, affective empathy can lead to customer service officers internalising the distress and anger of challenging customer, and if affective empathy is excessive this can have a serious effect on their productivity. It can cause customer service officers to feel emotions such as depression, anxiety, nervousness, worry, and a feeling of hopelessness at not being able to ‘fix’ everything for every customer. This is known as empathy overload.
On the flipside is ‘cognitive empathy’, sometimes called ‘perspective taking’ or ‘mentalizing’. Cognitive empathy refers to a conscious drive to identify and recognise a situation accurately and to understand another’s emotional state regarding this situation, without internalising these emotions ourselves.
Cognitive empathy is simply the ability to imagine yourself in someone else’s place, in order to see a situation from their point of view.
In a customer service situation, cognitive empathy is a very valuable skill. It enables you to put yourself in your customer’s shoes, and address them in an understanding manner while remaining rational and logical.
Using cognitive empathy helps customers to feel heard, respected and understood without over engaging with their emotions.
It’s important to find the right balance between the affective empathy, and cognitive empathy. One can be considered as ‘over-emotional’, while the latter can appear ‘under-emotional’. You need to be careful not to appear too distant and logical, as this can be perceived as unsympathetic to your customer.
Finding the right balance between the two is the key to remaining sane in a customer service role, while also providing excellent customer service.
Affective empathy can be physically exhausting, but cognitive empathy also takes work, staying engaged. Keeping a safe distance emotionally takes practice, especially if customer service officers are even slightly prone to affective empathy.
Training in emotion regulation, mindfulness and customer service skills can play an important part of customer service training.
Courses such as Ava’s Winning Ways to Communicate With Your Customers, Build Great Relationships Quick, and Convert Complainers into Raving Fans will help your customer service officers have confidence in their role and be aware of personal triggers that can occur and that may affect their emotional well-being.
Even customer service officers who are prone to affective empathy can, with the right training, become excellent, confident, and cognitively empathetic officers.