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How to use customer empathy to get repeat business

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Author photo: Carrie Shaw

Carrie Shaw

Chief Marketing Officer

Every customer you interact with has their own unique pain points, problems and concerns.

The key for you is to communicate with your customer on a level they'll respond to. The good news is that level exists. It's called empathy: an ability to put yourself in your customer's shoes and feel what they are feeling.

If you adopt an empathetic approach to dealing with customers, it can pay off in multiple ways.

Studies have found higher empathy leads to increased customer satisfaction, customer loyalty and financial growth. In fact, a study by Harvard Business Review found the most empathetic companies of 2016 increased their financial value more than twice as much as the bottom 100.

In this guide, we're going to look at:

Let's dive in!

What is customer empathy?

Customer empathy is the experience of understanding what your customer is feeling.

It's not exactly a new concept; customer empathy has been around as long as good companies have. But it has only recently become clear that customer empathy is linked to company growth and consumer satisfaction.

There are two types of empathy you can exhibit to your customers:

  • Affective empathy: when you sense someone else's emotions and respond appropriately
  • Cognitive empathy: when you identify and understand someone else's emotions

To practice customer empathy, you must stick to the Golden Rule: treat other people as you’d like to be treated.

If you can deepen your relationship with customers, it gives you a better understanding of their thoughts and feelings, and ultimately makes it easier for you to keep them around longer.

Why it pays to be empathetic to customers

What did Akio Morita of Sony and Steve Jobs from Apple have in common?

They never commissioned market research. In an article for the Harvard Business Review, James Allworth wrote that, instead of spending money researching customers, the company founders simply talked to them.

“They’d just walk around the world watching what people did. They’d put themselves in the shoes of their customers.”

A clear example of why it pays to practice customer empathy: the battle between Blockbuster and Netflix in the early 2000s.

While Netflix was building a product that reflected society's movement towards online streaming, Blockbuster had a tough choice: to create a disruptive competitor to Netflix, or stick to their business model at the time.

Yet there was a problem with Blockbuster's business model. Their late fees were a major annoyance for their customers, and their range of films hardly offered anything but new releases.

However, they looked at their profit margins, and decided to stick to their business model, to the expense of customer satisfaction.

"Stopping and considering what the world looked like to Netflix, or even what the world looked like to Blockbuster’s customers — would have revealed that this was not the choice they faced at all," Allworth writes.

"Their options, in reality, were to start the disruptive competitor — or go bankrupt."

Unable to give their customers what they desired, Blockbuster eventually filed for bankruptcy in 2013.

The rise of Netflix and the demise of Blockbuster went hand-in-hand.

The Blockbuster story isn't unique, and it won't be the last time a company fails to understand what its customers truly want.

To dig into this further, here are the four main benefits of adopting an empathetic approach:

1. It gives you a better understanding of the people you're serving

At its core, running a business is all about people. If you understand your people (whether it’s your customers or your own employees) better, it's easier to anticipate their needs, and create positive customer experiences.

For example, if you own a clothing store, how are you choosing what clothes to stock? Without putting yourself in your customers' shoes, it's hard to know what styles they are looking for or what their budget is.

Practicing customer empathy can help you answer these questions.

2. It makes it easier to solve issues quickly

When you understand what your customer is saying (and even what they're not saying), it's easier to make customers feel heard—and overcome problems quickly.

For example, customers may be having issues with a product glitch or feature.

If you approach the problem with empathy, customers are more likely to tell you exactly what went wrong, and what they want done about it.

Approach the problem with a statement like "I completely understand that this is impacting your service right now. If you’re able to tell me as much as you can about when the service cut out, it will be easier for me to pinpoint the problem."

Using empathy, you’re able to jump down into the trenches with your customer and solve issues together. It's often the first step towards resolving conflicts and keeping your customers happy.

3. It can encourage reciprocal empathy

There are a lot of hard conversations in business. Sometimes, you need to say no to customers.

Using empathy, you can spin these tough conversations into helping your customers see your point of view on an issue.

You might be saying no for a reason, like a product or feature is unavailable.

Empathy can help you find some middle ground with your customer—try statements like “I completely understand that the feature is super important for you and your business, and it's on the top of our developer's priority list."

Using empathy, you can show the customer that they're important and that you're working towards helping them—in the same sentence. Once you build this kind of trust with your customers, they're likely to start treating you with empathy as well, which will lead to a positive customer experience.

4. It can help you predict problems

You will be able to predict a customer's follow-up questions and answer them proactively. Predicting their problems and how your customer feels will help you implement better solutions.

Taking the clothing store example from point 1: perhaps the store owners are thinking about closing their doors earlier to save on wages.

But how would that make their customers feel?

If the doors close at 6pm, it'll be harder for them to shop after work and it might have a negative effect on trade. Instead of losing customers, the store could look at its peak shopping times and build their opening times around them instead. This puts the customer first, without the store suffering.

Empathy can make solutions to problems and issues easier to handle, and even predict them before they happen.

How to build an empathetic approach to your customers

Dealing with a customer's emotions and problems with empathy is easier said than done.

To build an empathetic approach into how you deal with customers, you can use an empathy map.

An empathy map is a tool that’s used to gain a deeper insight into your customers and how they're feeling. You can use this for individual customers, or even an entire customer group.

The map is a little more in-depth than traditional methods like surveys—it can predict problems before they occur, mainly by breaking customer problems and feelings down into four key areas:

  • What does my customer think and feel?
  • What does my customer hear?
  • What does my customer see?
  • What does my customer say and do?

Here’s an example of what an empathy map looks like:

An empathy map is made up of four parts: think and feel, say and do, hear, and see.

Let's break this map down into examples:

  • A customer could say and do: "I want a product that's reliable..."
  • A customer could think and feel: "The software takes too long to load..."
  • A customer could hear: "My colleague says…."
  • A customer could see: "I seen another product that has features like…"

To figure out what your customers are feeling, hearing, thinking and saying, it’s much easier to collaborate.

When creating a customer empathy map, gather up the rest of your team and ask them what feedback customers have been giving them on anything from product features to general feelings towards the company.

An example of a completed empathy map could look something like this:

A 4-step system to practicing empathy with your customers

A classic example of using customer empathy to boost company growth is Airbnb.

The company knew that their product was great, and it offered travellers an alternative to hotels.

Yet they also learned that there was growing anxiety amongst their customers who rented their properties out to visitors. What if the Airbnb guests destroyed their home or stole their possessions?

At the time, there were instances of this very behavior occurring with Airbnb customers. The company listened to what the hosts were saying, thinking, and feeling about the issue—and acted on it.

In 2012, the company started offering a free $1m insurance policy to all Airbnb hosts to give them peace of mind.

The result? Airbnb is now valued at $24 billion.

Employing this kind of empathetic approach to your customers can allow you to shape your products and services to mirror what they really care about.

Step #1: Be present with your customers

When you're interacting and talking with your customers, are they your sole focus or are you multitasking?

Giving all your attention to your customers and listening to what they're really saying is one of the most important steps you can take towards empathy.

If you don't give your customer your full attention each time you talk to them, you can miss important feedback they might be passing onto you.

Step #2: Pay attention to their language

Pay attention to everything your customer is saying. Are they happy? Sad? Afraid? Upset?

Be receptive and soak up their emotions so you can respond to them. Paying attention to their language and responding to them with empathy statements in a tone that matches the words they're using is key here.

When it comes to customer empathy examples, using empathy statements such as "you're right", "I'm sorry you have to deal with this", or "I know exactly how you feel, it's happened to me before and it's frustrating," helps you match how the customer feels..

For example, if your customer is angry, try and understand what's causing that feeling by using an empathy statement. Make sure you respond with a statement like “I can understand how frustrating it is when…” to let them know that you empathize with what they're going through.

Step #3: Be patient—it's your customer's turn to talk

Don’t interrupt your customer when you're talking to them.

Letting them speak shows them that you're really listening, and it also gives you time to plan an empathetic response. When it's time for you to respond, remember that your customer doesn't care about what you can't do; they want to hear what's going to be done.

For example, an angry customer logs onto a chat session after their order arrives—and it's wrong.

Let them vent their frustration, and then decide how you're going to fix it.

You have two choices. You can:

  1. Replace the order and end the chat.
  2. Empathize with them how frustrating the experience has been for them, and assure them that it's going to be resolved immediately.

Which response do you think will be better received by your customer?

Without empathetic customer service, you might replace their order, but they'll still be angry after you solve the problem. And it's likely, they won't be back. Using empathy, you can to turn a negative situation into a positive interaction.

Check out this article to learn six steps to deal with difficult customers.

Step #4: Do your best to understand their issues

Make sure you actually understand the issue your customers have. Ask questions and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification—the goal is to have a firm understanding of their issues.

For example, let's take a look at the customer who was delivered the wrong order in step 3.

What was their main issue?

Was the entire order wrong or just a part of it?

Were they upset because they needed the item for an event or occasion?

You might uncover that their main cause of concern was that they purchased the item for their daughter's birthday, and the replacement may not reach them in time.

To rectify this, you could tell the customer that you will express post their new order out to them, with a bonus gift for their daughter.

Not only you prove to the customer that you empathize with them about their daughter's birthday, but you turned the situation into a positive with the extra gift.

Pro-tip: Where you can, use positive language to solve problems. By framing a situation in a positive light, it's possible to change the attitude of the entire conversation. If you're keeping the conversation positive, it's more likely to elicit a better response from your customer.

Make sure you replace negative language with positive language when dealing with customer complaints.

Use empathy to understand your customers and keep them around longer

It's crucial to know how customers think, perceive and feel towards products and services to keep them around.

Sure, you can use surveys, discounts and loyalty schemes to encourage them to stick around. But using empathy in your conversations and product decisions is a deeper approach to understanding your customers and creating lifelong fans.

Connecting with them empathetically can create an understanding between you and your customers that few other customer-centric approaches offer.

Everyone wants to be heard, and your customers are no different!

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