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.