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Rod Webb

Glasstap Limited

Director and Co-Founder

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Customer Service 3 – Empathy


This is the third of my blogs on the topic of customer service and what separates ordinary service from excellent service. In previous months, I’ve considered the importance of a solid foundation of knowledge and basic skills, and listening skills. This time, I want to consider empathy as a skill.

When customers talk about a ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude, what they are actually referring to is an apparent lack of empathy. Empathy is a vital component of customer service. It means being able to put yourself in the customer’s shoes and consider the situation from their perspective.

Take a recent visit to a shop where I was buying paint. Whilst the manager mixed the paint I’d requested I started to look through the wallpaper books. On her return, I sensed that far from being encouraged, my continued presence in the shop was an inconvenience. I was so sure that I was no longer welcome that I asked if it was OK to look for some wallpapers and curtain fabric whilst I was there.

“Well, I’m just shutting”, she replied, “because I need to look after the other shop during the lunch period.”

Now, the other shop was literally ten yards away on the other side of a narrow street.

I’m sure a solution could have been found. As a regular customer, perhaps the manager could have trusted me enough to leave me in the first shop browsing whilst letting me know she’d be across in the other shop if I needed her or had made a choice.

But the manager was completely absorbed by her own needs and focused on her own desires to give much attention to what my perspective might be. She had no interest in discovering that, far from living a few yards down the road, I’d travelled 15 miles to visit her shop, and that I wouldn’t have another opportunity to do so for a few weeks.

A lack of empathy for customers is a common problem and it’s usually caused by a disproportionate amount of attention being focused on internal policies, procedures or needs, when most of that focus should be on the needs of the customer.

A lack of empathy leads to customer transactions littered with phrases like: “That’s just the way it is”, “We can’t do that”, “It’s more than my job’s worth”, “It’s against the rules” etc.

In order to be more empathetic to our customers, there’s one skill we need to learn and practice – conversation. Asking the right questions in the right way, can provide us with lots of useful information that means that we are better prepared to understand our customers’ needs and meet them.

In the case of the interior design shop I visited, a couple of simple questions like: “Have you come far?” “What are you looking for today?”

Given that’d I’d been in several times before buying paint, she might even have said something like: “We’ve seen quite a lot of you recently. You must have quite a lot of decorating on?” This would naturally have led onto a conversation from which she could have discovered that I’d recently moved house and was in the process of working through it room by room – useful information for her to have.

Let me conclude with a positive example of empathy in practice. I recently visited Café Nero in Barnstaple, where I asked if they had any of the fruit and seed bars available. The Barista checked but she didn’t: “I’m sorry but we’ve only got frozen ones”, she said.

“They might be a bit hard”, I responded, smiling. “Then, as an after thought I asked: “I don’t suppose you can toast them from frozen”.

The Barista thought for a moment and after checking with a colleague said: “Well, they’re bread, so I don’t see why not. I’ll bring you one over when it’s done.”

Now I felt guilty about all the extra trouble I was putting her to. “Oh, don’t worry I said. I could just have a muffin. I’m sure that’ll be a lot less trouble for you.”

“Maybe”, she responded smiling warmly. “But you’d really like a toasted fruit and seed bar wouldn’t you?”

I left the café smiling from ear to ear because of the friendly service I’d received. It required very little extra effort on the part of the Barista who’d served me really; just a little empathy.

Rod Webb

Author Profile Picture
Rod Webb

Director and Co-Founder

Read more from Rod Webb

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