Building a marketing strategy? Start with empathy.


By Kerry Gorgone, {grow} Contributing Columnist

I just didn’t want to get sweaty. And that’s how this marketing lesson begins.

I was recently faced with a tense travel situation and decided to forgo a short commuter flight and drive to make a tight connection at the Philadelphia Airport. This allowed me to make my connection comfortably without having to run across the immense airport for a connection (a recent study showed that Philadelphia has the greatest walking distances of any airport in America!)

I called customer service about my change and was met with derision and criticism from the representative. She said that my reservation would be canceled when I don’t show up to the first scheduled flight and that there may not be availability on the second flight (the one for which I already have a seat). She said I would have to purchase an entirely new same-day ticket, even though I’ve had a seat booked on that flight for months.

I hung up on the unhelpful person and waited until I arrived at the airport. Driving the speed limit the entire way (I swear), I arrived at the Philadelphia airport before the original connecting flight even left. The customer service representative at the airport couldn’t be more helpful. They simply added a note to my reservation so I would not be cancelled. Wasn’t that simple?

It’s all about empathy

I breathed a sigh of relief, and began to consider the role of empathy in customer service. Why did I have to get so stressed over a simple call to change a flight? Why couldn’t every customer service be as considerate as the live representative at the airport?

American actor Alan Alda recently wrote a fantastic book called If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? The book addresses the role of empathy and communication, turning to both academic studies and his own experiences as a professional actor.

The book proposes that the basis for all effective communication is empathy. I couldn’t agree more, especially at that airport moment. How could the customer service representative for the airline not realize that their own sloppy scheduling was causing anxiety on the part of their customers? Moreover, I was going well out of my way to fix my own problem (their close connection), even though it cost me money to change my rental car return location.

Even if she couldn’t do anything for me, her tone of voice was like an eighth-grade teacher chastising a student for neglecting her homework. I will never fly this airline again.

What are businesses today doing to ensure that the people on the front lines have empathy for customers? What can your business do to ensure that your customers aren’t treated with disrespect and condescension? There are a few simple solutions.

1. Empower your employees. Really.

First, empower your customer service people to bend the rules when they judge it appropriate to help your customers, or in this instance, to help your customers help themselves? If employees are punished for deviating from The Rules, they will never deviate, even when it would make a lot of sense to do so.

2. Make it part of the culture

Second, consider formal communication training for your customer service staff. You might use improvisational exercises, as Alda does with his fellow actors or more formal communication training.

Certain types of team building exercises can help to nurture empathy, as well. The building block of good customer service is understanding the customer experience, and genuinely caring about customers. But you can’t care about customers unless you care about other people generally, which brings me to my next point.

3. Embed empathy in the hiring process

Hire people who are naturally empathetic. I’m not saying they need to cry after every news broadcast. Find people who take a genuine interest in others, have the imagination to envision what their experience has been like, and care enough to correct the situation when a customer’s experience with your brand has been less than ideal.

Although it can be difficult to suss out someone’s true colors during the interview process, you can ask questions in which you pose a series of facts and asked the person how he or she would respond. You could also use a probationary period, already common in many industries, so that after the “honeymoon phase” ends, you can see how well the person actually handles upset customers.

If the people you hire treat customers like an inconvenience, those customers will not come back. We all know this, and yet the fact that there is so much subpar customer service happening out there leads me to believe that people are not checking up on their employees.

4. Assess yourself with a phone call

You could also try one of the oldest tricks in the book, which is to call your own customer service line with a problem that needs fixing and see what kind of treatment you receive. So long as you’re flying under the radar with a different username, you should get a real sense of what a typical customer service experience looks like. This isn’t a replacement for reviewing customer survey and monitoring social media, but it is a great source of anecdotal evidence.

It’s not just service. It’s your future.

In my situation, I made it home just fine, but I can imagine more dire scenarios in which subpar customer service and a lack of empathy rob people of their chance to make it home or get the products and services they badly need. (The people affected by recent hurricanes and other horrific weather-related events come to mind.)

In our industry, empathy pays off in higher customer satisfaction, more repeat business, and in overall brand sentiment. But customers are people too, and empathy is how we live with and relate to each other. It’s a quality we must all possess.

kerry gorgone

Kerry O’Shea Gorgone is a writer, lawyer, speaker and educator. She’s also Director of Product Strategy, Training, at MarketingProfs. Kerry hosts the weekly Marketing Smarts podcast. Find Kerry on Twitter.

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