Empathy v sympathy

I have been delivering quite a bit of customer service training over the past 6 months and have added a lot of content on this topic as part of The Self-Running Agency Implementation Group. One conversation that makes for an interesting discussion is the difference between being sympathetic with a client and showing empathy. Some people believe we should be sympathetic – to show understanding. Yet when we are sympathetic, we join them in the same emotional space so there is a danger of there becoming two victims instead of one. A great customer manager will see the clear difference between what happened and who it happened to—and work on the former to bring things back to normal.

What’s the Difference?

The Oxford English Dictionary states that sympathy is “feeling pity or sorrow for someone else’s misfortune” and empathy is “understanding the feelings someone else is having.” Empathy means you can objectively ‘stand in someone else’s shoes’ whereas sympathy means you can acknowledge another person’s emotional state without necessarily understanding it.

So what has that got to do with customer service?

Understanding your customer’s experience as they engage with you is vital so that all staff can give customers a consistent experience. After all, we are all customers so can empathise with where the problems are and what we would want the process to look like if we were experiencing the journey ourselves.

Getting it right goes a long way to making the customer experience better for our customers but it misses the ability to show your customer that you’re listening and that you understand what they are experiencing. This is where empathy is so important (e.g. active listening and building rapport).

Responding to customers with sympathy—getting as upset as they are—puts you on an emotional roller coaster and can leave you worn out and frazzled at the end of the day. The trick is to be emotionally aware and sensitive without becoming too emotionally involved. When you respond with empathy, you stay calm and in control of yourself. Only then do you become at your absolute best: ready, willing, and able to help your customer meet his needs or solve her problem.

Showing empathy for customers allows you to be professional and caring at the same time. It also makes customers feel that they are important and what they are saying matters.

Great customer service results in great client relationships, and both customer and staff retention – so is more important than ever.

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