Customer service often involves empathizing with customers.
It can be highly rewarding to connect with someone and help them feel better. Sometimes, you can almost see the weight leaving their shoulders or hear it in their voice over the phone.
But we all have our limits. Empathizing all day, every day can be exhausting.
A Customer Service Tip of the Week subscriber recently contacted me because she was concerned her team was experiencing empathy fatigue. They were getting worn out and she was looking for resources to help.
Here are a few suggestions if your team is in the same position.
What is Empathy Fatigue?
Let's start with a basic definition. It's often referred to as compassion fatigue, which is defined this way by the Merriam-Webster dictionary:
the physical and mental exhaustion and emotional withdrawal experienced by those who care for sick or traumatized people over an extended period of time
Think about situations where you or someone on your team has to empathize with angry customers all day, every day. You listen to their story and absorb their anger. You apologize, try to help them feel better, and then look for a solution. And repeat. And repeat.
A resource article from Psychology Today lists several symptoms that really stand out:
Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
Blaming others for their suffering
Physical and mental fatigue
Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness
Beginning to receive a lot of complaints about your work or attitude
Yikes! None of these sound like an ideal recipe for a happy and helpful customer service representative.
Coping with Empathy Fatigue
There is some hope for those who spend their day empathizing.
One of the biggest impacts of empathy fatigue is we dehumanize the person we are serving and stop caring about their problems. A 2015 study from researchers C. Daryl Cameron, Lasana T. Harris, and B. Keith Payne discovered that we are less likely to dehumanize someone if we feel that empathizing with them will be rewarding.
In other words, it becomes easier to empathize with a customer if we believe helping them will make us feel good.
Customer service leaders can make empathy feel good in a variety of ways:
One leader I recently spoke with encourages employees to share success stories during a daily team huddle. It helps people work through challenging times and stay focused on remembering all the people they help each day.
Other leaders engage their team in iceberg hunting. This involves investigating unusual issues and looking for practical solutions. Employees feel empowered and a sense of pride when they can solve an iceberg.
Some clients I've worked with have become experts at customer storytelling. For example, a medical device manufacturer has large posters covering the walls of its office with pictures of patients whose lives have been saved by the company's products. These stories are often shared in meetings and company updates, to remind employees they are helping to save the lives of real people.
It seems like there's always something wearing us out. Empathy fatigue is just one of several types of fatigue that can hurt customer service.
Customer service leaders can take action in a number of ways:
Find ways to make empathy feel rewarding (see above).
Encourage employees to take breaks and recharge.
Create a customer service vision to give the team purpose.
To discover more hidden, counterintuitive, and unusual obstacles that stand in the way of great customer service, check out my new book, Getting Service Right.