Working in a call center – What is Empathy?

I like my job. It’s not what I dreamed I would be doing at this age as a kid. Not that I gave much thought to it at the time, but it does have its’ interesting peculiarities. Chief among them is the ability of an agent to exercise empathy toward the person on the other end.

This is a much easier thing to do over the phone than other means of support like e-mail or chat. So what is empathy? Your company’s trainer will tell you its’ the ability to understand the customer’s issue and to “put yourself in their shoes”. I contend this is only partially correct. You do need to understand the issue and you do need to understand why it’s important to them, but empathy goes farther than that. You have to be able to tell what mood they are in as they are calling. This is not something you have the luxury of determining during the call. The first thing they say and how they say it is your first indication, and be prepared for their mood to change throughout the call.

Your trainer will tell you to use words like “I understand” and “I’m truly sorry about the situation” and I often hear colleagues using these phrases as if they were a surefire way to ease the caller’s anxiety, but they are often said as a knee jerk response to what they are hearing and almost always end up sounding unnatural and fake. This only goes to exacerbate the problem as even though they are having an issue with whatever service you are supporting the assumption that “most callers are stupid” is at least misguided and at worst simply wrong.

This goes both ways, a caller may assume that working a support job is a simpleton’s occupation. Start your call with a flat greet that sounds like you’re in a speed reading competition and you’ve already made the first step toward convincing them that their innitial assumption is true. Your greet must sound like a real person speaking. It serves a threefold purpose.

Firstly, the caller receives a confirmation that they have called the right place, so speaking really quickly for the sake of your average handling time will defeat this purpose. This informational scope also includes the fact that they hear what your name is. This is important because the caller may or may not receive a survey about how you did. If you want a good grade, the first step is making sure they remember who you are.

Secondly, your greet will establish who is in control of the conversation. If you speak too slowly or sound nervous in any way, the caller will pick up on this and will assume control themselves. This is not entirely a conscious decision on their part as you must understand a call is a dance – it takes two to tango, but someone has to lead and since you are the one who knows the process that needs to be followed to achieve a resolution, you MUST lead the call. If this does not happen the caller will ask you to do certain things that you are not proceduraly able to, since they are in charge, not complying with their demands is a kind of insubordination and you will be deemed unhelpful, incapable, or worse a robot, a monkey or what have you – clearly not great for your survey results.

The third function of your greet is displaying confidence, and how likely you are to provide real, meaningful help. A greet that is expressed on a single flat note will not only not achieve this but will make the caller less likely to understand any difficulties you may face throughout the call such as the need to place them on hold, or not being able to fulfill their request due to procedure, because in their mind, they are dealing with a person who is following a script. Scripts are not something you can change and so they are faced with a situation that is likely to frustrate them unless they take drastic action, in this case being mean or dismissive or asking to speak to your supervisor. Good luck on your survey.

Empathy goes both ways. You need to know what the caller expects from you not strictly from a service point of view but from a conversational point of view, and at the same time you must act in a manner that is likely to elicit their understanding. Empathy is not pity, it is respect. Ending up in a situation where you have to say something like “sir, please understand that <insert inability statement here>” is a clear indication that you have failed at this task.

So exercising empathy starts with the very first few seconds of the call, likely the most important ones, as they determine the entire course of the interaction. Your work is not over though, you have to carry this throughout the call and gauge the caller’s attitude continuously. Are they jovial? Serious? Chatty? Formal? How old do they sound? Where are they from? Sketch a rough portrait of what you think they look like in your mind. How would you really be talking to this person if it was real life?

You will be told that being a professional means leaving your day to day problems at the door. This is not just an empty saying. Empathy does not mean just putting yourself in someone’s shoes, it means being someone they respect whom they believe can help them. There are very few callers who will be uncooperative from the get go, after all, they called you and not the other way around and one can say that you start the call with a neutral satisfaction index. Often times you will be faced with types of people you may not necessarily like. You need to put this aside and focus on the task at hand and from the moment you pick up the phone, start looking for ways to be that person’s closest friend, if you’re good it won’t last that long, and if you’re really good you’ll have a blast doing it.


2 thoughts on “Working in a call center – What is Empathy?

    • hope it helps, new hires tend to get very nervous at first, it’s important that they be endowed with clear ways of overcoming this, training is really important

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