In customer support, empathy is everything—we need to be able to put ourselves in our customers’ shoes, feel their pain, give them the kind of help we’d want to receive whenever we have a problem. Potential hires are even tested for empathy before joining the team. (In case you missed it, Jim wrote a lovely post about empathy yesterday.)
Empathy is a skill—like any other, a skill that can be fostered and developed and built into a culture. (Dev Patnaik’s “Wired to Care: How Companies Prosper When They Create Widespread Empathy” explores the role empathy plays in successful organizations.)
Every once in a while, admittedly, my empathetic skills can be … challenged. And sometimes I make mistakes.
It happens. When a person we are genuinely trying to help is being unnecessarily rude or refusing to listen, it can be frustrating. In those situations, our capacity for empathy is compromised. The temptation can be to “stoop to their level” because “they’re just not listening” or “I can’t get my point across any other way.”
I recently worked with a customer who wasn’t able to sign into her website. Not our product, Basecamp—her own website. I did my best to politely explain they were different tools, and that she’d want to contact the admin for her website. She “frowned” me, and left angry feedback because she still wasn’t able to sign into her website.
I checked this customer’s history—she had written in about the same issue before, and another teammate had already politely explained she was barking up the wrong tree. I tried another reply, explained a different way. She left more angry feedback, because she still couldn’t sign into this other tool.
At that point, frustration got the better of me. “I’m really sorry for the misunderstanding,” I wrote. “I can only help you with Basecamp, though. I’m unable to help you get into your website. That is not our tool, or our company. Does that makes sense? It is as though you have contacted support for your vacuum cleaner, when your dishwasher is what is broken.”
I went to her website and found the company who supports it, and gave her the link to their customer support site. Turns out, her website was for her petsitting business. I read her “About Me” page. She has two boxers.
I have two boxers.
Her humanity slapped me right across the face.
What was I doing, scolding this fellow animal lover (this fellow human!) about vacuum cleaners versus dishwashers? Why didn’t I try harder to explain things clearly and patiently, like I would with my mom and dad? (Come to think of it, why aren’t I more patient with my mom and dad when they have tech questions?) I felt about two inches tall.
She didn’t write back. I hope she got the help she needed.
From now on, in my mind: Every time there’s a challenging case, the customer owns at least two boxers.
Dougon 10 Jul 13
Sometime, they just want you to listen. It’s not about the nail
Eric Andersonon 10 Jul 13
Maybe I’m just not support material but I think the analogy of vacuum cleaner vs. dishwasher is a perfectly fine response. It takes the issue she is not understanding (that different companies run and support different websites) and puts in it terms that she might understand better (different companies make and support different cleaning products). Where is the scolding?
Ryanon 10 Jul 13
If my employer allowed people to rate me with a “frown” or “smiley” I’d lose my ability to empathize too. You’re not being treated like a fully human employee. (Does 37signas rate programmers on an asinine three point scale? Oh wait, I already know the answer.)
PS I rate DHH a royal :-(
Emilyon 10 Jul 13
@Eric, fair point. Maybe I thought it sounded meaner than it actually is because I was upset when I wrote it. The tone of “Does that make sense?” strikes me as particularly patronizing now. You should have seen the first draft I wrote. ;) Anyway, we usually go above and beyond to be super-friendly with our customers, and I missed the mark here.
Lockeon 10 Jul 13
@Eric it is not about being right or wrong, it is about having a relationship with your customer, in which they feel they made the right choice in choosing product X. If your customer leaves a support ticket feeling like they were not helped they may not stick around, and they definitely won’t be referring their friends to product X.
@Ryan thank you for your insightful comments. It is clear that you understand customer service, and the need for feedback from your customers. What would we have done without you…
Thanks Emily. Great post.
Johnon 10 Jul 13
I develop my own apps and handle all my own customer support, neither at the scale of 37signals, but nonetheless, I have insight into both business aspects. I LOVE being a developer, but I will tell you right now that dealing with customers sometimes makes the whole thing not even worth it. It’s the worst part of the whole thing for me.
I wish I could be more constructive, but it can ruin your day when you’ve developed something and put your blood, sweat, and tears into it and some customer publicly shits all over it with a nasty rating for a dumb reason.
I’ve started taking customer phone numbers when they sign up and now I call them right away when they give me a hard time. It’s so strange how people change over the phone when they realize they’re talking to another human being.
Anyway – I feel for you. Don’t be afraid to say it: customers/people are horses’ asses
Thomason 10 Jul 13
@Emily, do you recommend any book how to become more empathic human being? I really like your post so I think you are the right person to ask for this advice :). Cheers
Johnon 10 Jul 13
Some more thoughts while I was taking a shower – two things on topic but unrelated to each other. The problem with dealing with negative customers is that one negative interaction can be equal in magnitude to maybe 1,000 positive ones. You get desensitized to the positive interactions, but you never get used to the negative ones (unless one day you just totally stop caring period).
Another thing is that I don’t think empathy is appropriate in all cases. I mean, sometimes you’re just dealing with a shit person, and you wouldn’t feel empathy for a rattlesnake or a pit bull trying to attack you.
Sorry if I’m being a downer. I think about this topic tons though and have no solutions for it.
Jason Belecon 10 Jul 13
I have 2 Chow Chow’s and I totally agree with where you ended up on this post. It’s always so easy not to be calm and supportive while justifying it. Support for a client in a frustrating moment is one of the hardest things anyone can do. It really shouldn’t be though, apparently evolution is still working this one out.
GregTon 10 Jul 13
TIL there are companies where the support people have the time to go check out the web sites of individual users!
William Gon 10 Jul 13
On of the reasons I’m not a customer of 37 Signals, and never will be, is because in my one interaction with DHH on Twitter, he was a complete and total asshole, snotty, snide, proud of his ignorance and when I said something he disagreed with, he called me a name and blocked me.
When you treat people this way, they don’t ever want to do business with you. All the BS blog posts (From him especially) that you guys put out are completely undermined by the way he treats people.
@Johnon 10 Jul 13
You work on your computer while your in the shower?
Erikon 10 Jul 13
@Thomas What you’re looking for are books/articles on “reflective listening”, something mostly pioneered by Carl Rogers, the preeminent human-centric psychologist of the 20th century. It’s a simple process, easy to learn/hard to master of course.
One of the nuances of empathy that isn’t brought up often is that it is different than sympathy. When you sympathize, you feel sorry or understand that someone else is feeling bad/sad/mad/frustrated etc. “I can see that you’re frustrated, and I know what frustration is.”
Empathy (in some definitions) is different. It is the act of forcing yourself into another person’s shoes and approaching things from there. It’s very hard. You think to yourself:
“So, let’s see. I am a person who owns a website, but I’m not technical or experienced enough to realize that my hosting provider is not 37signals. As I am trying to log in to my site into the wrong place, I feel powerless and now that I’m looking for help and clearly am not getting any, embarrassed and frustrated. I still don’t see that there is a different login, and my relative IQ or intelligence level notwithstanding, I am pretty sure I’m talking to the right person. Why won’t she just HELP me?”
If I was that person, wow, I’d be mad. Once I’ve convinced myself that I’m that person, then I approach the situation. That’s empathy. Granted, maybe you still are forced to tell them that you work at 37signals and can’t help them, but at least as you approach the situation, you realized that in their world they fully believe they are correct and can’t understand how things could be any other way.
That’s empathy. Sympathy is sorta feeling pity for someone else’s 90 year old grandma who is being hassled by a cop that pulled her over for driving too slow. Empathy is what you feel in the passenger seat when it’s your 90 year old grandma getting hassled (the trick now is to empathize with the cop…)
That’s how I see it. I have psych degree and did 2 years of interning with a therapist.
Michaelon 11 Jul 13
One of the tricks I learned as front-line IT was to empathize with the computer and think about what it’s trying to do. Then, I learned to switch to sympathizing with the user to talk to them about it. I agree it’s essential to giving support. Although, I’ve never managed to care about anyone’s dog, child, sports team or motorcycle. ;)
Steve Ton 11 Jul 13
Having worked in multiple support roles in different media (over phone, email, in person), I totally get what you mean. The way to solve problems, both in terms of understanding the users’ position and understanding their technical issue, is to have the empathy to see the issue entirely from their perspective. And that’s about judging their skill as a user, judging their perspective on technology, even judging their current mood. Sounds like your team does a pretty good job with this stuff for the most part.
Though I do hope you’re all judged on more than the smiley-face quotient… it’s a good summary tool but I think we’d all agree it doesn’t give the sum total of how support works?
Haraldon 11 Jul 13
@Thomas – Check out ‘How to win friends and influence people’ by Dale Carnegie. It’s old and cheesy, but as long as you use the advice in it sincerely, you should be all right.
Mihaon 11 Jul 13
I think that besides maybe ‘Does that makes sense’ the response and vacuum cleaner – dishwasher analogy is just perfect. You put it in laymans terms, she finally understood it (hopefully), you weren’t aggressive and that is it. Job well done. If I were doing your job, I would be proud of that kind of response.
Brianon 11 Jul 13
Great post, Emily. I especially enjoyed the details of the encounter, as well as your corresponding thought process… we all go through it, even those of us who aren’t directly involved in customer service. Imagine if everyone put as much effort into listening to people as they did trying to be heard. :)
Alan H.on 11 Jul 13
Please show pictures of your boxer, I have a male fawn!!
Davidon 11 Jul 13
As someone who started as a lowly retail clerk, and eventually worked as a sales associate for Hewlett Packard, and later ran his own web dev business, I can assure you one thing: There is a percentage of customers that are simply not worth the time.
I know this is totally antithetical to most businesses’ philosophies, but let’s look at the customer in question: She has a product (Basecamp) that requires a fairly sophisticated level of technological ability to use and manage. Yet, she doesn’t even understand that it’s not the product that runs her CMS. In my mind, she shouldn’t even be using Basecamp. It’s far too high level for her. In other words, your solution to her problem should have been to dissolve her usage of Basecamp altogether.
What’s the loss for such a maneuver? Certainly it’s not an empathetic move, but a company, an service agent, they can only do so much to ameliorate the situation. She’s certainly not a corporate or high-level account. The time expense, the monetary expense that accompanies supporting a customer that shouldn’t even be using your product is a bit absurd. This is what they mean when they say support spends 90% of its time on 10% of its customers. It’s silly to pretend she was a valid customer at all.
Thomason 11 Jul 13
@Erik and @Harald, thanks!
JSon 11 Jul 13
@SteveT – We’re most certainly judged on more than the smiley rating. In fact, I’d say that the support team members care way more about their own smiley score than any one who would evaluate us.
But we all care about how the customers felt about their interaction. We’re not like an airline—people have a lot more choices in software and if they feel bad about how we treat them, they can and will go somewhere else. Using Smiley also gives us really quick feedback and some quantifiable data when Support wants to push for a change based on customer’s concerns.
Abc123on 14 Jul 13
Jeffon 16 Jul 13
I’ve told my son his entire life (he’s 22), when he would tell me about a really bad experience with a transaction at a business or a person, REMEMBER HOW THAT TRANSACTION MADE YOU FEEL (and never make anyone else feel that way).
This discussion is closed.