Can You Train Empathy? Exploring The Human Side of Customer Care


Can empathy be trained? Is it a vital part of customer care? And what are the limits of empathy in a business? These are important moral and practical questions which we'll be discussing. 

The last couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about how call centers and superior customer care can increase your business’s revenue. These are the kind of topics that make spreadsheets happy; they are exactly what a business is supposed to do: increase revenue by offering the best services. Customer care is, after all, a service.

But what kind of service? It isn’t tangible. It can’t be manufactured. It isn’t something you can truly quantify, either. Sure, you can quantify its results, but the quality of care is somehow less understandable.

That’s the human side of it. It is being able to step into the shoes of the person calling or emailing or interacting with you though bots or social media. It is about understanding where they are coming from, and working to improve any situation.

That can be hard. It is a legitimately difficult position, balancing the needs and the goals of the company, not to mention the representative’s own career goals, with the issues, frustrations, and needs of the customer. These are all aligned, of course, but not always in neat ways.

That brings up the most important question in customer care: can you teach empathy? Can that be part of training, or is it just inherent? Why do some customer care professionals excel at empathy, and others do not? And what is the practical limit to empathy?

We’ll be starting a new series asking these questions, wondering over the next few weeks how you can instill in employees a sense of empathy while keeping them aligned with the company goals. But for now, a story and a moral question that all companies, and all customer service representatives, need to ask themselves.

What Is the Nature of Empathy: An Example

I’m going to turn the rest of this section over to a friend, who wishes to remain anonymous. But this story is 100% accurate and honest, and provides a moral and practical question for any employer.

“In the fall of 2009 I was working for a company that provided background checks for businesses. We did everything--checked references, looked at school history, verified dates of employment, and ran criminal background checks. That latter was my department.

“At that point I had been at the company for a few years, since the fall of 2006. It was one of those jobs you take out of need, and where time suddenly rushes by. That’s not to say it hadn’t been eventful, though. Because while I was there, the housing market, and then the economy collapsed.

This was America in 2008 and 2009

“With far fewer jobs, and far more unemployed people desperate for work, our business actually boomed. Employees could be, and were, considerably more choosy.

“We had recently signed a major, major client: one of the country’s largest security companies. This was, like, a transformational client for what had been a medium-sized business. It was good news. And since they hired security guards, they had very strict standards. Any criminal activity anywhere on an applicant’s record meant I checked a box that said ‘disapprove’, and they didn’t get that job.

“That was that. Punch in a name to a database, find the right person, cross-check, etc maybe call the county clerk to confirm, then check another box. And that person didn’t get the job. You had to disassociate yourself from it, sometimes. Or just be grateful you had a job in 2009, you know?

“One day, I had an applicant. He was 68 years old, and applying for a minimum wage position. He had, I saw, worked steadily until he was 65. I assumed he lost out big when the market collapsed, or for whatever reason didn’t have the money he needed to live a decent retirement.

“One problem though: he had a shoplifting conviction from 1966, from a county in Kansas, where he hadn’t lived in 30 years. It was one of those bureaucratic things. It was his legal right to expunge a record that old; the only reason it hadn’t been is because both he and the county had forgotten about it. This county kept meticulous records going all the way back. If they hadn’t updated their database with old, old records, this guy would have had a job.

“But he didn’t. Because of one thing more than 40 years ago. I don’t know why, but this sort of broke me. He clearly needed the job. So I delayed. I wrote that we were having trouble getting records from the county. And I secretly called the guy. I explained what was going on. And, with his daughter’s help, walked him through the process of getting the record expunged. Needless to say, this was enormously against the rules. 

“So after that, I was able to mark ‘no record’. The problem was that the daughter called my boss to thank us for our help. But we weren’t in the business of help. So it was reported to our client, who was livid. The price of keeping our contract was me being fired.”

The Ethics of Empathy

When are you required to help someone?

So here’s a question...was my friend right to do what he did? On the one hand, he helped an older adult get a job he clearly needed (my friend said the daughter confirmed how desperate her dad was for the job). And the reason he was ineligible for the job was a glitch. If the record had been expunged the week before (or 30 years before, when it was eligible to be), he would have gotten the job.

So, to my friend, this was a matter of simple justice.

But then again, his duty wasn’t to the applicant. His job wasn’t to get people jobs; it was to make sure that people were technically qualified for the jobs to which they had applied. His duty was to the employer. In a very real way, he was right to be fired, and he didn’t argue the point.

Most customer service examples aren’t this dramatic. But there comes a time when the needs and wants of a customer are in conflict with the needs and wants of the business.

How is that dealt with? One way is training, for every situation, which is why you want your third-party customer-care partner to have top-of-the-line training programs, and understanding of your business, and industry-leading employee retention.

In a way, these are larger and unquantifiable questions. But we’ll be trying to answer them over the next couple of weeks. And let us know what you would do in that situation, as either the employee or employer. We’re interested in your opinion.

RDI-Connect is your full-service call center and customer care partner. We combine cutting-edge technology with superior hiring and training procedures to give your organization the support it needs. Your success is ours. To learn more about how we can partner with you, please connect with us today.

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RDI Corporation was founded in 1978 and is headquartered in Blue Ash, Ohio. We provide precise business solutions through a fully integrated outsourcing model and our clients ranged from mid-sized corporations to distinguished Fortune 500 companies.