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Great customer service starts with 7 letters

(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY There is no shortage of advice, opinion, theory and technology around the practice of customer service. Some of it good, much of it not. But none of it -- none of it -- will result in a truly exceptional customer service environment if it isn't built around one simple word: Empathy.

No matter what procedures, processes, people or tools you put in place, empathy -- the ability to identify with and understand somebody else's feelings or difficulties -- is a quality without which superior customer service simply can't exist.

If you Google "customer service best practices," it returns about 13 million results. Tack the word "empathy" onto the same search and the results drop by 95%, to 700,000. By no means a scientific study or conclusion, but I think telling.

Customer service empathy can be boiled down to five simple questions:

  • How does the person I'm trying to help feel?
  • How would I feel if I were that person?
  • No matter the request or the "rules," is there something I can/should do to help?
  • What would I expect to be done for me if the roles were reversed?
  • In the end, what would make this customer satisfied or (better yet) happy, and is there any reason I can't do it or find someone who can?

With these five questions and the right attitude, you need little else to be a customer service superstar. They cannot be replaced with a 700-page handbook or multi-million dollar CRM system.

Empathy is often ignored or lost when companies start to get excessively clever and complex. Things like NIA (Next Issue Avoidance), ASA (Average Speed of Answer), KPI (Key Performance Indicators), and any number of other acronyms and metrics dehumanize a very human interaction. Articles, white papers and corporate guidelines often read like satire to anyone who is truly passionate about customers. They are full of buzz terms and grandiose technical language, focused very much on operational performance and "ROI," and very rarely focused on the person around whom all of this complexity revolves. It's akin to having a conversation about someone who's standing in the room but ignoring the fact that she's there.

Companies get so caught up in their systems and investments that they lose sight of the fact that genuine empathy can obviate the need for much of it, or at a minimum certainly simplify it. "Eyes on the prize," as it were.

I expect to get the usual flack from the people who work hard in these highly structured, analytical environments and think that my approach to service is quaint and unrealistic. That's OK. Their jobs -- and entire departments, businesses and industries -- revolve around systematizing service, I understand that. And of course I realize that in all areas of business there need to be steps, measurements, and controls in place (and the bigger the organization the more may be needed). But today's customer service standard-bearers have proven that process should only be built on a basic, human-focused foundation, and when it comes to serving humans, empathy is the best place to start.

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