Customer Service is Not Life or Death (Until it Is)

I had just crawled into bed, exhausted after a long day. 

My four-month-old puppy tried to get comfortable in her crate next to me. She was still getting used to her new home and was full of pent-up energy. The torrential rain we'd experienced that day didn't help and she had worn me out.


A drop of water landed on my shoulder. I looked up and saw a patch of ceiling above me was soaked through. Dragging myself out of bed, I got a ladder from the garage and climbed into the attic. 

There's not a lot space up there. Certainly not enough to walk around. I had to crawl over duct pipes and under beams to get to the right spot. When I got there, I found water dripping from the roof and pooling in the attic right above my bed.

Water leaking into the attic.

It was a frustrating moment. The roof was just four years old and still under warranty. Two year ago, I had noticed a leak in the same place after an unusually powerful rainstorm. The roofer came out and told me he had fixed it. Apparently not.

I sopped up the water and laid towels in the attic to absorb the continuous dripping. Then I crawled back into bed even more exhausted, after making a note to contact the roofer in the morning.

The next day, I sent an email to the roofer with pictures of the leak. The rain had stopped, so it was no longer an emergency. I figured he would have his hands full with similar requests and might take a day or so to get back to me.

He never did.

Service failures like this are almost never just one thing. It wasn’t just the leak that frustrated me:

  1. A new roof was leaking.

  2. The roofer told me he had fixed the roof, but it wasn’t.

  3. I was exhausted and trying to sleep when I noticed the leak again.

  4. I worried about damage to the ceiling (it turns out, there was).

And now the roofer wasn't returning my message.

I tried calling. A recording said the number was disconnected. I went to the website, but the website no longer existed. I did a web search of the company name and saw it had gone out of business.

Damn. There goes my warranty. This leak was about to become an even bigger problem because I would have to find another roofer and pay for the repair out of pocket. Part of the ceiling would need to be replaced as well, after water soaked through it.

Out of curiosity, I searched the roofer's license on the state licensing board website. Perhaps the license was still active and the roofer had moved or sold the business. Or maybe I could just track the guy down and give him a piece of my mind.

The search result was not what I expected: "This license was canceled on the death of the contractor."

I'm not sure what happened. He wasn't an old man. I imagined his family missed him, deprived of his presence earlier than expected. He had employees, too, and I imagine they all lost their jobs.

Suddenly, my leaky roof wasn't as important.

We all face frustrations as customers. Some of us lose patience and rant and rave as though it's a matter of life or death. It almost always isn't. This experience was a reminder.

I've worked with a couple of clients where service really was a life or death matter. The service they provided literally contributed to saving lives. So I've seen the difference between that and a leaky roof, an undercooked steak, or a flight delay. 

The experience made me reflect on a few things:

  • Customer service is not life or death, unless it really is, so act accordingly.

  • It’s important to treat others with empathy—you never know what they are experiencing.

  • Every job is a part of your legacy, so always do good work.

I'm still not happy. And I'm a bit conflicted between my empathy for the roofer's family, friends, and employees, and the knowledge that his legacy in my mind is a service failure. But I'll try to maintain perspective as the next storm rolls in.

How to Help Your Team Cope with Empathy Fatigue

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.

Emotionally exhausted person wearing a paper bag over their head.

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

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Physical and mental fatigue

  • Feelings of hopelessness or powerlessness

  • Poor self-care

  • 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.

Take Action

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.

3 Types of Fatigue That Can Destroy Customer Service

Many customer service employees view the holidays with dread.

It is supposed to be a joyous, festive time. The reality for many of us is our already busy days are filled with holiday activities such as baking, writing holiday cards, getting our Christmas shopping done, and attending a multitude of holiday parties.

Some customer service employees experience all that coupled with their absolute busiest time of year. They log countless hours of overtime. Each workday is a never-ending line of customers.

It's exhausting. 

There are three types of fatigue in particular that are dangerous this time of year. Here is an overview of each one and how it may harm your customer service.


Lack of Sleep

Health care professionals generally recommend adults get seven to nine hours of sleep per night. A 2013 Gallup poll found that 40 percent of us get less than that.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention lists concentration and memory as the two highest-reported effects of insufficient sleep. We see this in customer service when employees have difficulty concentrating on your needs or remembering to call you back as promised.

Many of us overdose on coffee to compensate for a lack of sleep. Studies show too much caffeine can lead to difficulty sleeping, which makes the problem even worse. 

How much employees sleep is largely outside of our control, though there are a few things we can do.

  1. Share this blog post with employees and discuss it.
  2. Try to keep employee schedules as predictable as possible.
  3. Schedule holiday parties in January. (I've done this several times and they are often so much more fun!)


Directed Attention Fatigue

Customer service employees are besieged by distractions.

We're asked to multitask. The average contact center agent juggles five to seven computer programs using two monitors. Our daily world is filled with buzzes, beeps, screen flashes, and other signals that constantly capture and redirect our attention.

Over time, those distractions cause fatigue in the parts of of our brain that focus attention and block out external stimuli. This is known as Directed Attention Fatigue, or DAF. Some psychiatrists refer to it as Attention Deficit Trait (ADT) and suggest the symptoms are very similar to ADD.

Here are a few signs from DAF from Bernadine Cimprich:

  • Distractibility
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Indecisiveness
  • Difficult starting and finishing tasks

All of these can be detrimental to outstanding customer service. This makes it essential for customer service leaders to help employees avoid or recover from DAF.

There are only a few things that are known to work:

  • Promote a workplace free of unnecessary distractions. 
  • Reconsider whether using two computer monitors is a good solution.
  • Encourage employees to take breaks outside, since nature is known for its restorative qualities.
  • Set up a quiet room at work to give employees a place to unwind.


Empathy Fatigue

Customer service employees are supposed to care about customers.

We're expected to listen intently, try to understand customers' feelings and emotions, and take action to show we really understand.

Demonstrating too much empathy can be exhausting. The resulting fatigue is referred to as empathy fatigue, compassion fatigue, or even burnout. Here are just a few symptoms from Psychology Today:

  • Feeling burdened by the suffering of others
  • Blaming others for their suffering
  • Isolating yourself
  • Loss of pleasure in life
  • Difficulty concentrating

This is another list that clearly isn't conducive to outstanding service. 

My study on contact center agent burnout revealed a few factors that can lesson the risk. It is likely these same factors are applicable in other customer service environments, too:

  • Customer Focus. Burnout risk goes down when employees believe their company is customer-focused.
  • Empowerment. Employees are less likely to face burnout when they feel empowered to help their customers.
  • Quality. Better products and services mean fewer upset customers, which means less empathy is needed. Elite companies are relentless about avoiding angry customers in the first place.



In his article, The Dopamine Economy, Umair Haque explains how many of our habits are unhealthy for our mental well-being. A lack of sleep, constant distractions, and an inability to truly focus result.

These habits become ingrained because they trigger dopamine releases in our brain. This makes these unhealthy habits incredibly addictive.

One way to break the cycle and recover is to schedule an unplug event. You can try this on your next two-day weekend. 

Here's how it works:

  1. Avoid all digital media. That means your smart phone, your computer, and even the television.
  2. Spend time outdoors. Try going for a walk or a hike where you can get some fresh air and observe natural beauty.
  3. Engage with friends. Have a game night, invite some friends over for dinner, or do something else that allows you to spend quality time with other people.

The first day won't be easy, but it gets better. By the end of the weekend, you'll likely feel more refreshed and focused than you have in a long time.

Avoid Angry Customers with The No Fault Technique

A subscriber recently sent me the transcript from a chat session she had with a customer.

Her customer had gotten angry and ended the session abruptly. He then complained in a survey about the service he had received. 

The subscriber asked me, "What did I do wrong?"

The gist of the chat session is the customer wrote his payment wasn't going through. The customer service representative responded by saying that, based on the error message the customer received, the most likely causes were an incorrect debit card number, insufficient funds, or a bank error.

I have no reason to doubt these responses were technically correct. It was the delivery that likely angered the customer.

In my reply to this subscriber, I commended her for reaching out to me. Not enough people make an effort to continuously improve.

Then I suggested she try the No Fault Technique.

It's helpful to start by understanding why the customer got angry and then explore how the No Fault Technique can help in the future.


Why The Customer Got Angry

Let's take a moment to understand why my subscriber's original, fact-based response likely didn't go over so well.

It might help to imagine yourself as her customer. Picture a website with an online payment screen. You enter your payment information, but receive an error message. 

How would that feel?

Most of us would feel a little anxious and frustrated. This experience engages part of our brain responsible for emotions, called the Limbic System. It's one of the three parts of the Triune Brain, with the other two being the primitive brain, which controls basic functions such as breathing, and the neocortex, which handles rational thinking.

The danger is the Limbic System can limit our rational thinking when it gets riled up.

Now, imagine contacting customer support via chat and the support rep tells you the problem is on your end. You either typed in the wrong debit card, you don't have enough money, or your bank made a mistake.

Now, how would you feel? 

It's very likely our fired up limbic system gets defensive and really shuts down logical thinking. It doesn't matter that the support rep's response was entirely rational and accurate. From the customer's perspective, it feels like blame. 


The No Fault Technique

Blame can really send a customer over the edge. It's a good idea to side-step a fiery limbic system by avoiding blame as much as possible.

The No Fault Technique is a way to do this by steering the conversation away from blame to focus on solutions instead. 

Lisa Dezoete, an Accounting Administrator at, often has to contact customers to collect payments for unpaid accounts. Here's how she uses the No Fault Technique.

"I start all calls off with a cheery voice, emphasizing it was 'probably an error' so they don’t feel embarrassed their payment did not go through."

Dezoete then tries to work with her customers to find a solution, such as giving an extension when needed or canceling an unwanted account. Her goal is to disarm the customer's emotional defenses by avoiding blame. 

One way to practice this technique is to use it in small situations where the stakes are low. For example, if someone sends an email but forgets the attachment, you could write, "The attachment didn't come through. Will you please resend?"

Let's apply the No Fault Technique to the payment processing error the subscriber wrote to me about. Here's how that conversation might look:

CSR: Let's try a few things to see if we can solve this!

  1. Try re-entering your debit card number, expiration date, and security code. Make sure the billing address is also correct. 
  2. Double-check the account linked to your debit card to make sure there are sufficient funds.

Customer: My card information is correct and I have enough money in my account.

CSR: Ok, here's another possibility. Some banks set up special fraud protection rules that prevent certain online purchases. If this happens, a quick phone call to your bank will allow the charge to go through.

If that still doesn't work, it may be easiest to try another debit card. We also accept credit cards and PayPal. 

Notice the root causes are still the same. The customer entered information incorrectly, lacked sufficient funds in his account, or his bank prevented the charge for some other reason.

The difference here is they've been reframed as suggested action steps, which shifts the focus away from blame.

The No Fault Technique won't work in every situation and customers may still get upset. But it will give you a better chance at finding a resolution!

How to Empathize With Customers 

The airline passenger was angry about missing her flight.

It was her fault. She had been sitting at the bar a short distance from the gate and lost track of time. Those things happen in Las Vegas.

Our emotions often rise up to protect our ego, so she looked for someone to blame. The first gate agent she talked to explained the airline's boarding policies and maintained that he had made several boarding announcements. It was a perfectly rational and reasonable explanation, but it wasn't the validation she wanted. So the passenger exploded—ranting, raving, and cursing.

Another gate agent calmly took her aside.

He listened patiently as she told her story. He didn't try to argue with her or make her feel stupid. The gate agent used the partner technique to shift his body language so it was non-adversarial. He listened.

Then he simply said, "I can understand why you're angry. You shouldn't have to feel this way." 

The passenger quickly calmed down and thanked him. She accepted an offer to get re-booked on a later flight.

The gate agent accomplished this minor service miracle through empathy.

Empathy Defined

Empathy is a core skill in customer service.

Customers often experience negative emotions. When that happens, the rational part of our brain cedes control and can't function properly. Everything stops until those emotions cool down.

Empathy is the magic that can take angry customers out of the red. Here's how defines empathy:

the psychological identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

When you empathize with a customer, it makes the customer feel better. Notice the airline gate agent wasn't agreeing with the passenger. He didn't say, "You're right, we should have sent someone to find you in the bar." What he did communicate was "I understand how you feel, and it's okay to have those feelings." He then took steps to help her feel better.

Of course, this is what makes empathy so difficult.

How do you empathize with someone you can't relate to? Unless you've missed a flight because you've lost track of time in a bar at the Las Vegas airport, it feels like a stretch to put yourself in this woman's shoes. 

Fortunately, there is a technique you can use.


Three Steps to Empathy

Here's a technique I've taught customer service professionals for many years.

Step 1: Consider why the customer is truly angry. For the airline passenger, there were three issues. She was stressed about missing her flight and being inconvenienced by a delay. She was embarrassed that she caused the issue. And she was upset about the lack of empathy from the first gate agent.

Step 2: Think about a time you felt the same way. Try to imagine a situation where you were angry or embarrassed about something that was your fault. We've all done something stupid. It may not have been missing a flight, but it was something.

Step 3: Use that experience to identify with your customer's feelings. When we feel angry and embarrassed, the last thing we want is to hear is its our fault. (That's the mistake the first gate agent made.) We want someone to tell us they hear us, that we're not so dumb after all, and that they would be happy to help us fix it.

This isn't an easy technique. I've seen many seasoned customer service professionals struggle with it. But think of the accomplishment if you can master it!

That airline gate agent used empathy to de-escalate what was quickly becoming a scene. He didn't just make himself look good, he represented his airline well.

And the passenger?

Some opportunistic by-stander swooped in and told her he saw the whole thing. He too empathized with her situation and then offered to buy her a drink at the bar.

That's Vegas for you.

That Crappy Job Can Make You Awesome

You can learn a lot from a terrible job.

My own early career was a bit checkered. There was a two-week stint as a telemarketer one summer while I was in college. (Folks, I'm really, really sorry for calling you.)

The first job I had out of college was at a company so painfully mismanaged that it started contracting not long after I joined. I was laid off after just over a year. 

The next company would have laid me off if I stayed there for six more months. The same goes for the one after that; that company went out of business not long after I left.

These were all miserable experiences in their own way. At the same time, I learned many critical lessons that are still valuable today.


Working for a terrible company can be a grueling test.

My first job out of college was a National Account Manager for a company that sold uniforms. Our quality was terrible. It sometimes felt like half the orders we shipped out had an error. These errors aggravated my customers, hurt sales, and caused me personal embarrassment. 

There were many times when I wanted to throw in the towel and either quit or just stop trying. But, I learned that things could get better through hard work and perseverance. I spent time understanding the production process and forming relationships with key people so I could identify the root causes of errors and make sure they didn't keep happening.

Gradually, I got nearly 100 percent of my customers' orders to ship without an error.

Customer service professionals need to be resilient in even the best companies. There's always a new challenge to tackle, and we're often on the receiving end of our customers' frustrations.



One of the worst days in my career was the day my company's CFO told me the company was struggling to make payroll and I needed to lay off about a third of my customer service team by the end of the day.

It was a terrible thing to do, but it also helped me think like an owner and not an employee. I realized that I could have foreseen (and possibly prevented) some of the layoffs if I had done a better job managing labor costs.

That experience taught me how to better translate my customer service plans into dollars and cents and show how service impacted profitability. I became a much better manager as a result.

We can't control everything our company does, but we can often expand our circle of influence more than we realize.



Like it or not, politics are part of every organization.

Terrible companies seem to be extra-political. It often feels like every employee is separately pursuing their own agenda with little regard for cooperation or team-work.

In one company I worked for, I learned the value of developing personal relationships with key people in other departments. Without a personal connection, some departments would flat-out refuse to cooperate with each other. Once I had struck up a genuine friendship with someone, I was able to get things done in an instant.

My friend, Grace Judson, offers a refreshing take on the subject in her book, The Five Deadly Shoulds of Office Politics. She emphasizes the need to empathize with co-workers so we take their needs into account when we are asking them for something.



There are some times when it's not worth sticking around in a terrible job.

In my book, Service Failure, I interviewed quite a few employees who would have been better off someplace else. One person deliberately provided hotel guests with poor service because her co-workers would have ostracized her for providing true hospitality. Another person found himself lying to customers because his boss instructed him to and he was afraid of losing his job.

If your job is like this, get out as quickly as you can.

Until then, learn as much as you can, do the best job you can, and always remember that your customers are still counting on you!

Why you need to view service through your customers' eyes

This sign greeted me as I entered a parking lot on a recent Tuesday morning:

I chuckled as I imagined what someone might think if they didn’t realize that Tuesday Morning was the name of a store. Yes, that scenario seems a bit far-fetched, but it’s a good reminder that customers can often view a situation in different or even unexpected ways.

This is a topic I’ve blogged about before. Two years ago, I shared a post about a sign taped to an ice cream cooler that either advertised a nice selection or the worst flavor imaginable (Seeing things from the customer’s perspective). This time around, I’ll relay a story from a friend of mine plus share a few strategies I use for gaining customer insight.

"You're no longer welcome"
A friend of mine recently posted an update on her Facebook page complaining that she had been refused an appointment at her hair salon. Apparently, she had been a no-show for an average of 1 in 9 appointments, so the hair salon finally decided to turn away her business. From the salon’s point of view, no-shows cost them money since that appointment slot would otherwise have been filled, so it made sense to cut loose an unreliable customer.

However, I doubt the hair salon considered my friend’s perspective when they made their decision or when they delivered the message. Predictably, she was quite angry to be abruptly told she was no longer welcome. It also made her remember the poor service she had received on her last visit, where she had previously forgotten about it because overall she really liked the place. Her post on Facebook drew many supportive comments and offers to refer her to another hair dresser.

How to see through the customers’ eyes
The challenge is our customers’ perspective is often only obvious in hindsight. It takes consistent, deliberate effort to really get inside your customers’ heads before a service failure occurs. Here are a few techniques you can use:

Teach empathy. The ability to empathize with another person comes from having a relatable experience, but customer service employees often have difficulty relating to their customers. Through proper training, employees can learn techniques to see things from their customers’ point of view (see 5 Ways to help employees empathize more).

Dig deep into survey data. The problem with a lot of customer survey data is it’s presented in aggregate, but those averages don’t tell the full story. For example, a client mined their survey data and discovered that one particular problem accounted for the overwhelming majority of customer dissatisfaction.

Look for icebergs. It’s easy to dismiss strange feedback as an isolated incident involving a confused and disoriented customer. However, in some cases this feedback may be just the tip of the iceberg. A favorite technique of mine involves digging deeper to see if there’s a systematic problem (see What the FAA can teach us about icebergs).

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!