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The Limits of “Empathy” in dealing with customers

We all learned, if something goes really wrong, first appologies to your customers. However, new research witnessing customer reps shows, that an appology, that extends beyond the first seconds of an interaction, can actually reduce customer satisfaction. Employees should instead demontrate how creatively and relentlessly they are trying to solve the customer’s problems. Best strategies observed by customer reps tried to actively explore a range of potential solutions to the problem. This brainstorming phase, more than anything else, is what customers will use to assess the encounter – and the more ingenuity and employee shows, the better.

“Customer satisfaction depends on creative problem solving, not empathy”, Bob Easton, MD Accenture Australia

While this seems contra-intuitive at first thought, a few examples might illustrate the power of problem-solving attitude vs. a “relational” one. Reflect for yourself, after the first recognition that you as customer do have a service problem, if you hear a sentence like “I’am so sorry for your troubles. I wish I could be more helpful” you might feel ok that someone is listening at all, but compared to a statement like “Let me see what I can do to get it for you as soon as possible. Let me share a few options” it definitely falls short of competency. Read through the full HBR article and research to full list of other examples how problem-solving is making a difference.

Enabling Customer Service: Do you really exploit Digital to differentiate customer service for problem solving?

Next to proper training of customer reps, how to use problem solving language and attitude, did you do everything in your company to enable those front-line employees to really have insight in customer problems, data, process and history? Modern customer service goes well beyond escalation handling, and it optimizing for every customer contact or touch-point, whether on the phone, online, on the website or completely automated. Start with ambitious targets (like “99% cases closed in 1st call”) and a holistic vision for customer service and build out the required data, tools and skills to design an build it over time. Second, ensure employees are empowered and have the authority to really solve customer problems right away. Build the required process and competencies right into the system. And third, review your processes, systems and business intelligence systems for how agile they can adapt to the problem-solving requirements – if it is taking months to adapt, consider changing or building agile, cloud-based customer service front-ends that can extract information from legacy systems way more agile.


Based on an article first publised in HBR, February 2018, “Sorry is not enough”. ABOUT THE RESEARCH “Frontline Problem-Solving Effectiveness: A Dynamic Analysis of Verbal and Nonverbal Cues,” by Detelina Marinova, Sunil K. Singh, and Jagdip Singh (Journal of Marketing Research, forthcoming); https://hbr.org/2018/01/sorry-is-not-enough
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