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Customer Service: Would You Like a Side of Empathy With That?

Do your employees understand the importance of expressing empathy to your customers when required?

My wife and I just returned from a speaking trip in another country. The trip turned into an epic  adventure involving delayed flights, missed connections, missing baggage, and yes, more delayed bigstockphoto_Grumpy_Middle_Aged_Man_3105194flights. Some of it was weather related, some issues were mechanical, sometimes we were waiting for the  “paperwork”.   At one point we had a pilot but no plane, then later on we had a plane without a pilot.

As a frequent flyer (owing to my wildly glamorous life as a professional business speaker) I’ve been there before as no doubt many of you have.  And yes, some of the issues were beyond the airline’s control. Some were within their control.  Regardless, what was 100% under the airline’s control was their level of customer service – in particular the level of empathy their staff conveyed to passengers.

And yet, time and time again, I found little signs of empathy. At one point, while waiting for our lost bags after missing our connection and after being rerouted and having to spend an extra day overnight and delay our arrival by more than 24 hours, rather than receiving any empathy I instead received a lecture from the baggage desk employee about the proper way to file away my baggage tags.

So here’s my question for you: Are your employees trained in the art of expressing empathy to customers when things go off the rails? Are front line employees given the freedom to solve problems as best they can or do you have a “I need to talk my boss” or a “It’s against our policy” mantra that kicks into autopilot anytime something bad happens?

Businesses need to understand that all it often takes to ease a customer’s concerns is a friendly smile, a sympathetic ear, and a sincere expression of empathy. Expressing empathy with a sincerely expressed statement such as, “I’m so sorry for everything you’ve experienced – you must feel very frustrated?”, can diffuse conflicts and prevent a bad situation from escalating to the point where customers lose patience and where you potentially lose a customer for life.

Michael Kerr, 2016. Michael is an international business speaker and the author of six books, including The Humor Advantage.


  1. Comment by Heather Shaw

    Unfortunately, we often don’t get a choice when it comes to airlines. They know that, don’t they?

  2. Comment by Mike Kerr

    I agree Heather. When businesses (or governments) have a monopoly (or close enough to it) then it’s much easier to take customer service and their customers for granted!

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