When Empathy’s Not Enough

I remember a dialogue once about empowerment with several people. The general consensus was that empowerment was, generally speaking, a good thing.

One person, however, made a simple point. “It’s only as good as the people you empower,” she said. “If you empower stupid people, you deserve what you get.”

Fair enough. A similar cold-water dash in the face comes from Sam Bloomfield. The issue this time is the equally ‘soft’ and ‘good’ value of empathy.

What could be wrong with empathy, you ask? Well, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but there’s a danger of forgetting the ‘and also’ aspects. The correlate to the ‘stupid people’ problem with respect to empathy, Sam suggests, is the presence or absence of action taken:

A recent Harvard Business Review piece [Why Small Companies Are Better at Customer Service] addressed how large companies can learn about productive customer service from small companies. The article’s author related his personal experiences about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ customer service. The author concluded from those experiences that smaller companies have a lot to teach larger ones because the people in smaller companies can “empathize” with the customer and therefore deliver better service. And large companies need to learn to empathize more.

In fact, while empathy helps, it simply is not enough. The cited examples also showed, although not observed explicitly by the author, that smaller companies were able to resolve the problem – produce a satisfactory result for the customer. In the small company examples, the employee did not just empathize, s/he also satisfied our author. Those results I would suggest are the key to effective customer service and experience.

So empathy is fine – up to a point. When a customer service representative does not help you resolve your problem empathy alone loses its currency.

Also, large organizations trying to appear more empathetic often devolve into a ’script’ or canned responses like “I am so sorry” or “I apologize”. We simply don’t trust that they mean it, until we see what they can do for us. You can’t institutionalize caring, trust or empathy because those traits, if they are genuine, are not just words but sincere feelings. I would suggest that this customer in the article was ultimately really satisfied because of the actions taken.

Empathy, Sam’s suggesting, may or may not be a necessary condition, but it is surely not a sufficient condition.

He’s certainly right about one thing. On some level it’s obvious, and not surprising; there aren’t that many pro-empathy people who really think empathy alone is sufficient.

But that’s not the bigger problem Sam’s pointing out. That problem, I think, is businesspeople who don’t understand empathy, and who think that a little slathering of empathetic trappings can keep the customer complaints down.

As Sam puts it:

Large companies are usually effective at creating processes that standardize activities for large numbers of interactions with repeating patterns. But they often fail at creating a standard process for establishing a trusting and sincere relationship with their customers, the very foundation upon which rests all successful call center interactions. In short, one cannot create a process to elicit a sincere human emotion.

I don’t know about you, but it bugs me when a customer service rep leads with “Oh I do apologize for that, Mr. Green.” 99 times out of 100, the rep of course had nothing to do with the problem. It’s fine to say, “ouch, that’s certainly not right, and we’re sorry you had this problem—what can I do to help?” But don’t apologize!

Good apologies require some standing of responsibility. I don’t want an innocent bystander to apologize for hitting my car, I want the apology from the texting-cellphone-jabbering idiot that hit me!

There’s empathy, and there’s empathy.  The harm done is not using too much empathy—it’s using it badly, sloppily, and without clean intent.

4 replies
  1. Ian Welsh
    Ian Welsh says:

    Let me suggest a simpler explanation: in smaller companies, less procedures and less management control means the person you’re talking to on the phone has the authority to fix your problem. In large companies you usually have no authority to actually say "I’ll replace that item, sir" or take any other steps which cost the company money without either management approval or jumping through hoops designed to control costs.  Unfortunately, fixing things for the client often does incur costs. 

    This isn’t just about small companies vs. large.  When I used to work for a large multinational financial firm in a small department’s new business call center, at first I had a lot of authority and could fix things.  At that time there were maybe 20 of us doing the job, and the job had only been established 2 years prior to my starting.

    By the time I left there were 60 people doing the job and the department had been in existence 9 years.  There were procedures for everything, I had to ask for permission from a manager to waive anything more than $5 (we were dealing in financial products which often cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, $5 was nothing) and so on.  There was a "client relationship department" which was seperate from us (when I started that was our job, not someone else’s) and so on.  Throughput productivity had been emphasized over fixing problems and management had been micromanaging us.

    It was, in short, virtually impossible to just solve someone’s problem.  When I started, it was a good job, because I was left alone to do my job.  My clients (who were repeat customers I got to know well) loved me.  By the time I left, it was assembly line customer service with overworked harassed CSRs who had no authority and were essentially script bunnies.  They also no longer understood the products we were servicing, so when things went wrong they often didin’t understand why.

    The more you manage your CSRs, even with the best of intentions (like so-called "best practices") the more you make it impossible for them to have the flexibility to give good service.  Smart management is guidelines and management by exceptions – CSRS should have a lot of authority, and managers should watch for spikes – if a CSR is spending a lot of the company’s money, investigate and see if it’s justified.  But don’t manage out of fear, and with no trust: train them well, then trust them, and don’t micromanage them.

    Small firms don’t have time for this sort of standardization, best practices, and rule making.  And so they tend to have better customer service.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charlie,

    You write, "The harm done is not using too much empathy—it’s using it badly, sloppily, and without clean intent."

    me: the harm done is using the intellect to analyze, manage, diagnose, prescribe, digest, metabolize and otherwise "play at" things of the heart, e.g., empathy – not always a successful venture.

    I equate empathy with the experience or quality of "friendship," (and BTW, you know there’s not one leadership or management book that has a chapter on friendship).

    When I’ve experienced empathy on the part of a CSR, true empathy, I honestly felt (not thought) that person was a "friend," energetically (not intellectually), truly interested in helping me resolve an issue, not a "role-playing" automaton going through the motions of a script (albeit there are the latter who resolve issues as well and without an ounce of empathy, and that’s OK.) 

    Funny how the "scientific" approach to matters of the heart seldom leads to actual heart-felt action. Greater understanding, yes, but understanding is not do-ing or be-ing. The intellect, a wonderful thing. However, it does have its limitations.

    Where empathy is concerned, the challenge is moving folks to relate from a deeper place, below the neck. Many are just unable or unwilling. Stats won’t do it.

  3. Greg Falken
    Greg Falken says:

    Empathy is part of the process of connecting with another person. It’s not an end in itself. Genuine empathy is a sincere attempt to understand the other person’s feelings and needs, which a simple apology does not do. Without empathy, the other person is much less likely to trust that you have the desire to solve their problem.

    The object of making a connection is for both people to feel that they have a stake in the outcome. The final step in the process is to decide on an action that it mutually agreeable and satisfies both party’s needs. In a customer service setting, if the company representative doesn’t have the authority to take such an action, all the empathy in the world isn’t going to help.

    I posted recently about how web sites can reflect empathy, feelings and needs on my blog, should anyone be interested.

  4. Sims Wyeth
    Sims Wyeth says:


    I keep reading about CRM (Customer Relationship Management), and companies that have created specialized call centers, known as “save centers,” to help retain customers who are ticked off and want to cancel their contracts and get their money back.

    To staff up these save centers, companies tend to look for high-performing agents from the traditional call centers of their own companies. Surprisingly, however, these employees tend to under-perform in their new role, mainly because of poor listening skills.

    They think the problem could be that these regular call center agents are accustomed to using scripts. They engage with the customer, but while the customer is explaining her point of view, they don’t really listen.

    In a study done by McKinsey, one telecom save desk hired candidates with superior listening skills. It found that within three months these agents had save rates two to three times higher than those of more experienced people in the regular call centers.

    It is tempting to consider the possibilities of extending this lesson to a broader range of communication activities, including sales, coaching, consulting skills, managing difficult conversations, and leadership training too.

    Listening is persuasive because it:

    • makes the other person feel respected and understood
    • helps the listener understand the feelings and perceptions of the other party
    • enables the listener to ask better questions
    • enables the listener to understand how to relate to the other party
    • enables the listener to speak to the customer, in the language of the customer, about what’s most important to the customer
    • helps the listener take the right action, not a prescribed menu-driven action




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