5 Ways to Help Employees Empathize More

Empathy is an amazing customer service skill that can solve a lot of problems, lead to enormous goodwill, and create customers for life. A popular story on the internet today details how a Southwest Airlines pilot held his plane so a late passenger was able to travel from Los Angeles to Colorado in time to see his grandson before he died. An understanding of what the grandfather was experiencing prompted the pilot to take extraordinary action. (Read the story here.)

Unfortunately, demonstrating empathy can be difficult for many customer service professionals, especially when the situation isn't quite so extreme.

A housekeeper in an upscale hotel may never have spent $200 to spend the night on a luxury hotel room.

A tech support rep may fix his own computer, so he has a hard time understanding why so many customers can't fix seemling simple issues.

A sales rep at an office supply store might not own a small business, so she can't related to the needs of the business owners she serves.

How can you help employees empathize?

There are simple techniques you can use to ensure your employees are better able to demonstrate empathy with your customers. Here are a few of my favorites.

#1 Hire people who have been there, done that. I love buying outdoor gear at REI because the people who work there are passionate about the gear they sell. When my wife, Sally, and I bought backpacking equipment a year ago, a sales associate who was an avid backpacker gave us all sorts of useful pointers. Compare this to a big box sporting goods store where the only 'pointer' you might get is the sales associate's finger pointing at an intimidating wall of backpacks.

#2 Help employees acquire customer experiences. If your employees aren't already customers, help them temporarily become one. For example, some hotels have associates spend the night as a guest to gain a new perspective. Another great one is a catalog company that gives its reps gift cards to other catalog companies so they can see what it's like to be an a customer. And, there's always the time-honored employee discount!

#3 Coach employees to empathize. Employees can develop a better sense of empathy through coaching. Start by having them identify why a customer might be upset in a particular situation. Next, ask the employee to think of a similar experience and how they felt. Finally, discuss ways they can provide assistance so the customer won't feel like they did.

#4 Conduct after action reviews. Empathy skills can take time and patience to develop. Try conducting an 'after action review' when an employee misses an opportunity to serve with empathy. This will help the employee identify alternative strategies that might yield a better result the next time they encounter a similar situation. An after action review also helps the employee focus on future performance rather than feeling upset at being blamed or scolded by the boss.

#5 Remove anti-empathy pressure. You'll naturally create more empathetic employees when you remove negative pressures that might convince them to act without concern for their customer. The Southwest Airlines pilot who held his plane for the grandparent risked upsetting the other passengers and possibly getting into trouble. However, Southwest Airlines quickly reinforced his actions by releasing a public statement that made it clear they were proud of their pilot's actions.

How else can you help your employees demonstrate empathy? Chime in a share your ideas!