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Customer Success Should Strive for Empathy - And Community Helps

Written by Molly Talbert | on June 14, 2016 at 8:30 AM

Customer success should strive for empathy - and online communities help

Here’s the situation: you can’t figure out the new software your company is making you implement. You call customer success and get this response: “Sounds like you’re in a tough position and have lots to learn. How can I best help you figure out this software so you can do your job?”

That’s empathy.

You work through your current troubles and feel much better. But there’s still one thing you can’t figure out. The next day you call back and get a different customer success person with this response: “I’m sorry, but you’re wrong. I can see from my end that everything is working. I wish I could help, but I don’t know what the problem is.”

That’s sympathy.

Which would you prefer?

An enormous part of customer success, no matter the industry, is about connecting with customers, understanding their needs and frustrations, and communicating effectively with them. In short, it’s about practicing empathy -- which your community can help cultivate.

Before we dive into exactly how your community can help your customer success team better connect with your customers, let’s look at what exactly empathy is.

What is empathy?

Most people know what apathy is -- a lack of interest or concern -- but empathy and sympathy are often used interchangeably and incorrectly. Although they’re similar and are emotions that fuel much more connection than apathy, they’re very different -- and knowing their difference can strengthen your customer interactions.

So how, exactly, are empathy and sympathy different?

  • Sympathy -- is being sorry for someone and caring about their troubles, but not connecting to their emotions on a personal level. “I’m sorry you’re so frustrated by our product; I can’t imagine what it must be like.”
  • Empathy -- the feeling that you share and understand another person’s emotions. In other words, you can connect to their feelings and understand, more deeply, what they’re going through. “It sounds like you’re very frustrated by our product; I’m committed to figuring this out with you.”

Brené Brown, whose TED Talk on vulnerability you’ve most likely seen, explained it well in another talk on empathy. She said sympathy, when used flippantly, often discourages connection, while empathy builds connection.

In a nutshell, here are empathy’s defining characteristics, according to Brené Brown:

  • Recognizing a person’s perspective
  • Not judging
  • Recognizing emotion in the other person
  • Being able to communicate that emotion

And here are examples of what she means:

  • “I’m sorry you’re frustrated by our product, but there’s just no way I can help you.”
  • “You must be frustrated and I don’t know exactly how to help, but I want to do everything I can to help.”

Can you guess which is sympathy and which is empathy?

Sympathy isn’t always bad, and it’s a big part of customer service -- it’s important to apologize and to tell the truth. But sometimes sympathy isn’t enough, or isn’t the most useful feeling at a given moment. And, when misguided, can really backfire -- as this blog post illustrated.

That’s where empathy comes in -- connecting on a deeper level, by understanding and  acknowledge a customer’s feelings.

If customer success is about listening to customer’s and understanding their wants and needs, it makes sense that practicing empathy should be considered a key skill.

Learning empathy from your community

Now, where does your community fit into customer success and responding with empathy?

Communities give you unprecedented, valuable access to the inner workings of your members’ minds. Don’t take that for granted. And don’t squander your opportunity to learn what members truly think, what they want and what they need -- and figuring out ways to deliver those needs to them.

By watching discussions nonjudgmentally and observing patterns, language and themes, you can predict customer needs and learn what it’s like to walk in the shoes. That’s the beginning of creating an empathetic customer success experience and fueling connection between your organization and customers.

Here’s an excellent example of how listening to customers can help you respond with empathy, rather than sympathy (or worse -- apathy): how BART (the San Francisco/Bay Area’s public transportation system) responded to angry riders. Although their platform was Twitter and not a private community, BART did an excellent job responding to riders’ anger with empathy -- which helped begin rebuilding shattered trust.

The person in charge of their Twitter account saw an unusually large number of angry tweets due to rush hour delays. Instead of ignoring the complaints, or responding with generic, stock tweets, BART responded with empathy -- their spokesperson even admitted that he, too, is affected by BART delays during his commute and wants to fix public transportation.

Instead of staying high above the conflict in an ivory tower, BART came down, onto the ground and put themselves in their riders’ shoes.

What they did isn’t rocket science or unreplicable -- they simply listened, understood and then communicated what their community wanted and needed.

Here’s the situation: you can’t figure out the new software your company is making you implement. You call customer success and get this response: “Sounds like you’re in a tough position and have lots to learn. How can I best help you figure out this software so you can do your job?”

Topics: Customer Communities, Customer Success, Online Community

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