Developing Real Responses in Customer Service


Many organisations tend to create processes that force their staff to default to a standard “system” response. It might be a cold, detached response from doctors (seen as more scientific or professional), which can be experienced as uncaring “apathy” by patients. It might even be a sympathetic response, for example, in call centre staff dealing with customers’ technical problems. There are four main emotional responses in delivering customer service. When we only default to one, as a habit or as a rule, we can alienate many of our customers

When the System Default Damages the Customer Relationship

Behaving according to the “system default” involves always putting the process above the person.

It is a sure way to alienate customers or service users.

Sometimes there is flexibility within a process, sometimes the process can’t be changed. There are some rules which can’t be changed for legal reasons, others for reasons of fairness or cost.

Often the “system default” is invoked as a kind of defence “against” a customer. Sometimes it is just the style of communication (e.g. over-formal and cold), sometimes it is the content of the communication (invoking the rules, using jargon). Sometimes it is both.

The fixedness of the system is often the biggest cause of a customer’s frustration. The customer feels that he or she is not being acknowledged.

Yet people know that all organisations have rules, budgets and must operate legally and fairly.

Some simple steps

Do you or your organisation take these steps?

1. Prevent the frustration as much as possible through clear induction of new customers before signing any contracts.

2. Communicate effectively to all customers, listening to their concerns and answering questions, and, most importantly acknowledging frustrations and concerns

3. Anticipating problems and adapting where possible proactively, instead of fire fighting later

4. Ensuring systems and processes join up and that all staff communicate across and within departments so that mixed messages aren’t received

5. Backing up verbal communication with online and printed information that is accessible and easy to understand.

Often these are not in place and anger and frustration that could be prevented spills over to the front line of customer care – the telephone, the email and the reception.


When a rule or procedure must be upheld…

What happens when a decision doesn’t go according to a customer’s wishes? How do you deal with their frustration, angry reaction, or their feeling their needs aren’t being met.

The two approaches which make things worse are:

1. Antipathy

Here the choice of words or tone of voice make the customer feel that you are glad they are feeling as they do, that you revel in their situation. Of course, this is rarely in your choice of words and often in your tone of voice. Antipathy is a way of communicating that can make a customer feel:

– it is their fault/they on’y have themselves to blame

– that you are looking down your nose at them from a position of superiority

– that they are an annoyance in some way

– that “people like them” deserve what they get

– that they should shut up and comply

– that they are somehow in the way of you getting on with your work

The tone of voice can be accompanied by impatient sighs and a tone of talking down to them, or talking to them as if they are less intelligent than they really are. It can also involve ignoring or belittling their unique needs, personality and their wish to at least have their wishes acknowledged.

2. Apathy

Apathy is a choice of words and tone of voice of detachment and not caring. It is often a monotone voice and you come across as indifferent to their expressed or implied needs, and their current or past emotional state. You come across as if the system is always more important than the person – you sound official and without emotion. None of your words connect to the tenant or attempt to acknowledge them or their emotional state. You make them feel as if they are:

– just a number

– simply a cog in the system

– a process and not a person whose emotions are irrelevant

– only allowed a fixed number of minutes of the organisation’s time

– an illogical interruption to the needs of an efficient system

You come across as minimal and focus only on the technical needs of the interaction. The result is that people don’t feel cared for, and also not antagonised – they feel ignored.

The reaction of customers to both states will be either withdrawal or increased anger and frustration, possibly even tears or attempts to speak to another member of staff to get a different reaction. Often their compliance will be minimal in the short run but lead to further claims on the organisation’s time in the longer run.

The two approaches that tend to make things better are…

1. Sympathy

Here you use a choice of words, tone of voice and body language that suggests you “feel for” the other person. You will always acknowledge their emotional state and their needs, even if you can’t “bend the rules” for them. You’ll make attempts to explain and persuade, but always on the ground of their emotional state. Don’t underestimate the power of simply acknowledging someone’s needs or state, even if you can’t meet their needs. The anger or frustration in the short run will nearly always dissipate over time when people feel they have been heard and acknowledged.

A sympathetic voice makes use of the language of the tenant, phrasing things in their terms, reaching out to them, ensuring they know you care.

What if, deep inside you don’t care – what if it’s been a very long day? You may have to make the effort, act a little, but ideally you shouldn’t be on the frontline if you are in that state. Flexibility and the ability to “bat for each other” is vital when staff are dealing with irate customers. Get someone else to take the call if you can, if you are not up to it and sympathy is what is needed.

Sympathetic voices tend to go up and down in tone with the tenant, or may be more calm and straight, but will have a concern and warmth to them. The other person will feel acknowledged and “reached out to”, actively listened to, and feel they matter to you and the organisation.

Tough to achieve sometimes? Yes.

When you are in sympathy, that doesn’t mean you always comply or agree. But it does mean you reach out with understanding and authentic are.

2. Empathy.

You can only be empathetic if you have experienced something similar to what the customer has gone through, at least partly. It enables you to go beyond sympathy and not only feel “for” the customer, but also feel “with” the customer – and there’s a danger here that you can get too emotionally involved and lose your perspective as a service provider. So use this only when appropriate.

But it does enable you to connect with a customer and they will feel you know where they are coming from because you have “been there” yourself in the past. “Yes, I’ve had to wait for ages only to get to an answerphone myself”.

Empathy is a choice of words and tone of voice that puts you more alongside a tenant than in front of them. It can create trust and also the sense that “we both need to solve this together”. Empathy is born over time, as you spend time with one customer. Empathy is often not used by service providers because they see it as unprofessional. But it can be fine and effective, within the bounds of confidentiality, to let customers know you value and understand what they need or how they feel, and that you are “in touch” with their unique and diverse needs.

The Real Skill 

The real skill involves being able to adopt all four approaches. In a way, each one is an orientation in the world. Though empathy and sympathy may be used more often, apathy, and even antipathy can also be what the customer will respond well to. Sometimes a customer will be glad they have been challenged on their behaviour, even met with some anger which might come across as antipathy. “You’ve only your self to blame if you ignore the safety instructions!”. Often, in sectors such as health, many patients prefer a level of emotional detachment from the doctor or nurse. It is all about reading the need, meeting the need of the specific situation. It’s a flexible, improvisational skill.

If we only response with empathy, or with apathy, we will misread the needs of our customers. If we always default – as an individual or as an organisation (a system) to one response, we will only meet the needs of one part of our customer base. Real customer service involves being real with our customers. But if we are in the business of service, then we have to serve their reality, and not only our own. Truly compassionate customer care starts with an ability and a willingness to to “tune into” the emotional response that each unique customer needs. Empathy alone simply provides a generic, emotional “sheep dip”. We have to go beyond that and enter the realm of diversity.

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