by Andrew Gilliam
Date Published July 30, 2020 - Last Updated December 10, 2020

In January, we had high hopes that 2020 would be the "year of seeing clearly." If you ask me, the present sentiment is "the year I wanted to see in the rearview mirror," and "the year I needed lots of naps." For one reason or another, or a combination of reasons, we're all feeling a bit run down these days. When everyone is feeling frazzled, we must consciously address these emotions while supporting our customers and our teams.

Support centers around the world scrambled to adjust to working from home, while also supporting customers facing the same challenge. This year, there was already a renewed focus on cost efficiency, and it's only been amplified by changing economic conditions. Passion projects have been postponed or canceled in favor of putting out fires; many within our community are worried about their job security. Even simple personal goals, such as unplugging and going on vacation, have become unreasonably complicated.

As service providers, it's vitally important to remember we're not alone in these struggles. Our customers are feeling the same pain and anxiety we are. They are experiencing the frustration of learning new ways to work while having their ambitions sidelined. Delivering excellent customer service is hard enough when business is usual. Our support center analysts now must cope with setbacks of their own, while cheerfully embracing customers who are on the verge of emotional hijack.

According to HDI's Support Center Analyst curriculum, emotional hijacking is our body's response to perceived threats whereby the emotional part of our brain overrides logical, rational thought. When we're tense, frustrated, and then encounter yet another setback, the primitive fight-or-flight portion of our brain may engage, causing outbursts or arguments that are logically unreasonable. If not preempted through careful handling and customer service training, interactions may quickly devolve into unproductive spats between customers and service desk analysts. We're all a little more prone to emotional hijacks this year, which is why emotional intelligence and meeting customers' psychological needs are especially relevant.

In a study released earlier this month, Salesforce found that 30% of customers are seeking customer service more than usual. The increase is particularly dramatic for younger demographics such as Millenials and Gen Z. The research indicates that 70% of Americans are loyal to companies who show care and empathy. Even those of us with captive internal customers benefit from the positive sentiments achieved by showing our care through increased cooperation, collaboration, and reduced costs to serve.

Undoubtedly, we will be asking a lot from customers in the coming months. Service offerings and procedures will change; they will be inundated with communication from us and others. In the worst case, our support teams may shrink, creating unusual delays in request fulfillment and incident resolution. The more we can put ourselves in our customers' shoes when serving and communicating, the better they will accept these changes.

Customers won't directly ask for additional empathy, as if it were a packet of ketchup. By the time the customer has asked, it's already too late to demonstrate our commitment. Kate Nasser explains, "Being able to empathize with customers is an essential part of great customer service. Giving empathy only after you see tears is customer service incompetence. In waiting, you have created emotional scars. You have broken the customer's trust."

Customers won't directly ask for additional empathy, as if it were a packet of ketchup.
Tweet: Customers won't directly ask for additional empathy, as if it were a packet of ketchup. @ndytg @ThinkHDI #servicedesk #techsupport #CX #custserv

Trust has always been crucial in customer service. Customers must trust that they will be treated fairly, their issues will be resolved completely, and the process of receiving support is efficient. We've all escalated a case to a higher level of support, only to be hounded incessantly by a customer who seems impatient. There are strategies for making delays less painful, but to misread this behavior as impatience is a mistake. More often, the customer does not trust the support center's process for serving them, especially when they cannot see progress being made. This lack of trust may be a lack of understanding of the process, prior bad experiences with escalations, or a perceived lack of care by the first-level support analyst. The latter is easily within our control today.

Being empathetic without demonstrating it through action isn't enough. Jeannie Walters offers seven tips for helping employees put empathy to work:

  1. Reinforce active listening by encouraging these behaviors within your team.
  2. Use customer stories to highlight how empathy can be practiced.
  3. Role-play different scenarios where empathetic action is needed.
  4. Solve problems within your organization with empathy.
  5. Illustrate empathetic situations on a storyboard exemplifying empathy.
  6. Connect the customer journey to empathetic behaviors using an empathy map.
  7. Leverage your diverse team to formally advise on the best way to exhibit empathy to customers of different backgrounds.

As a support center leader, foster discussions about what customers are feeling within your team. This is especially critical when analysts are frustrated and need to vent. Simple questions such as, "Why was the customer so frustrated?" and "What may be going through their minds causing them to be so difficult?" are excellent ways to begin an empathetic discussion.

Venting is one coping mechanism for dealing with challenging contacts, but it's not always the healthiest. The resolution remains, "That customer was a pain!" That outlook only makes the next engagement more challenging to endure. I recall a time when I answered call after call about the same phishing scam; it wasn't even a sophisticated one. I thought, "How could people be so ignorant?" By considering customers' context and frame of reference, it became clear. Customers are not experts; they're not supposed to be. That's why support centers exist. This insight helped me to reframe frustrating calls as opportunities to help, educate, and relieve stress for customers, rather than wastes of energy.

Doing this work isn't easy, during the best of times. When things get tough, actively practicing empathy and seeing the world through our customers' eyes can improve service and support for both analysts and customers.

Andrew Gilliam is a passionate customer experience innovator and change agent, with a background in IT support and customer service. As one of HDI's in-house subject matter experts, he writes and speaks about service management, technical support, and contact center trends and best practices. Andrew was among ICMI's 2019 Movers & Shakers and Top 50 Thought Leaders for multiple years, and he maintains several HDI and CompTIA certifications, including CASP+. Follow @ndytg on Twitter, connect with him on LinkedIn, and discover more at

Tag(s): supportworld, workforce enablement, customer service, customer experience


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