Understanding vs. Empathy

There are few customer service experiences that I dread more than getting a new phone from a cell phone provider. But, I had to recently and, as always seems to be the case, I had issues and needed to call the provider afterward for questions, clarifications, and general assistance to get this “latest and greatest” device to simply make a damn phone call and for me to understand their convoluted billing process.

It took no less than three calls to get my answers and to get the online access to my account figured out. This was when I noticed an annoying trend… the overuse and misuse of the phrase, “I understand.”

“I understand” is fine if someone has taken the time to actually… well, understand. But often, this phrase is taught to customer service folks as a catch-all and generic way of demonstrating empathy. I don’t feel it works very well at all.

However, I did have a very different conversation with our insurance agency recently and, in my opinion, they actually got it right. When I voiced my complaint and asked for help, their customer service representative asked clarifying questions (to thoroughly understand my situation and frustration), then said, “This is crazy. No wonder you’re frustrated. I would be too. This should not be this hard, and I’m sure you have better things to do than spend this much time simply trying to pay your bill. I’m on this, and you have my word that I’ll be on it until we get it resolved once and for all.” And she did.

So, what’s the difference? True empathy. “That sounds so annoying,” makes me feel like we’re dealing with this injustice together rather than, “I understand,” which still makes me feel like we’re actually still on opposing sides, even if you’re trying to help fix it. It’s a small but powerful shift that requires three things:

  • Asking clarifying questions
  • Expressing the shared mutual feelings of frustration, anxiousness, or whatever the client is experiencing
  • Committing to solving this not only because the client wants it fixed, but also because you want it fixed

If you’re on the front lines in a business and dealing with client issues on the telephone or in-person, remember the difference between placating someone with an overused phrase that actually has little to no truth or meaning and one that demonstrates that you actually really do understand and care.

On the other side of 2020, all of our businesses will be different, and the ones that continue to thrive in 2021 and beyond will be those who have exceptional communication skills. It will put your business head and shoulders above the rest. It will be your competitive advantage.

“The more advocates you have, the fewer ads you have to buy.”
~ Dharmesh Shah