MY PAIN IS YOUR PAIN…Serving with empathy during a season of pain

We are living in unprecedented times. We are definitely in uncharted waters. The rate of havoc COVID-19 is causing is something that we are yet to fully comprehend. In spite of all the advances humanity has made over the past centuries, COVID-19 has exposed the frailty of our world. The number of deaths that we hear of daily (sometimes by the hour) is just mind-boggling. In terms of fatalities, it is being estimated that this pandemic will surpass some of the deadliest plagues in the past.

Mighty nations, with all their military forces, are unable to stand against this unseen enemy. Globally, economies that looked impregnable a few months ago are seeing all the gains of the past years eroded right before their eyes. The prediction from experts is that the world is heading for a recession. Some have even predicted that this could lead to the worst financial crisis the world has ever seen since the 1929 Great Depression.

Throughout all of this painful experience, one thing that has become abundantly clear is that human life is most valuable. Rightfully, the value of human life has been placed above economic growth, financial clout and material success. People are being asked to be human once again. We are being asked to occasionally check on loved ones and to think of our neighbours’ wellbeing as well. Calls grow by the day for a return to the very basic things such as care, fellow feeling and love. We are being asked to stay home but still to care for each other. Social distancing does not mean coiling into our shells and becoming self-centred. We must still reach out from behind our closed doors.

Within this scenario therefore, it is just appropriate that we touch on one of the most important tools to have in one’s toolkit as a customer service employee (CSE)—EMPATHY. Without empathy, there is no way one can rise to become a legendary customer service employee. Great front line employees are those who can walk a mile in the shoes of their customers.

As a matter of fact, empathy is so important that it finds itself in good company as one of the five principle factors or components of service quality according to the very popular RATER Model. It is the E in the Model. The other factors being Responsiveness, Assurance, Tangibles and Reliability.

There is ample evidence to prove that the level of empathy exhibited by the frontline employee has a direct effect on the level of customer satisfaction. Empathy has also been found to promote helping behaviour in individuals, meaning the more empathy the customer feels for the CSE, the more the customer feels inclined to be of help to the one. It has even been found that empathy even affects the perceptions of the quality of service by customers.

“Seeing with the eyes of another, listening with the ears of another and feeling with the heart of another,” that is exactly how the great Austrian psychotherapist and founder of the study of individual psychology, Alfred Adler defined Empathy. Others have defined it simply as “the response to and the ability to feel what others are feeling.”

Many scientists take the pains to differentiate between empathy and sympathy. Although both words have the same Greek root, “pathos”, there is some difference between the two. Sympathy is basically acknowledging what the one is going through and feeling sorry for the one. Empathy, on the other hand, goes a bit further. It is about walking in the shoes of the sufferer. With empathy, the idea is to try to understand and feel whatever emotions the other person is feeling.

It is important to note that empathy is not just a good feeling that one expects every human of sound mind and disposition to have. Empathy has concrete scientific backing. The results of a study published in the Feb 2004 edition of Sciencejournal revealed some interesting findings. Using 16 heterosexual couples who were deemed to have strong feelings for each other, the researchers used to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines to scan portions of the brains of each individual. They attached electrodes to the hands of each man and woman and used those to deliver mild or stinging electrical shocks to the arm of the individuals.

When one person was given those stinging shocks it was revealed that certain areas of the one’s partners’ brains which are responsible for emotional response to pain also lit up strongly. In other words, when someone we feel for goes through pain, our brains react as if we are the ones going through that pain. It goes without saying therefore that it is in our very nature to feel for others.

The study of empathy has even been narrowed down specifically to its effect on customer service. One study that revealed a lot about the effect of empathy on customer experience was published in an August 2012 edition of the Journal of Service Research. The study was titled “On the Role of Empathy in Customer-Employee Interactions”.

One of the results of this study was that the more a customer empathizes with a CSE, the stronger and more positive the effect of that employee’s empathy on the customer’s satisfaction. Another interesting finding was that when a customer expresses empathy towards the CSE, that customer was more forgiving when things do not go well. In other words, when there is service failure of any sort, the best thing an organisation needs is an empathic customer. 

The results of another one of those studies was published in a July 2018 edition of Cogent Business & Managementjournal. The study was carried out among active customers of telecommunication services in the eastern Chinese province of Anhui. The results of that study proved that employee empathy had positive and indirect effect on customer loyalty and loyalty outcomes such as positive word-of-mouth and repurchase intentions.

In another study whose results were published in a February 2019 edition of the Journal of Service Theory and Practice, it came to light that empathy was important to both CSEs and customers alike. Titled “The Role of Empathy in the Service Experience”, the study was conducted among tertiary education students and staff in Singapore. In a setting where the service experience is a co-creation such as that involving students and staff, it is important that each party is able to feel some sort of empathy towards the other. This is needed to create a pleasurable experience. It was found that for both students and staff, the provision of personalized attention to the student was an important measure of empathy.

There were however some slight differences in the way both staff and student evaluated other measures of empathy. One of such important departures was in the fact that whereas staff felt catering to the needs of students was important, students—on the other hand—felt that too much care attention had a negative effect on their experience.

Since the co-creation setting between students and staff is not too different from other co-creation scenarios, one can confidently assert that the role of empathy between a CSE and a customer is very important for the experience. However, as can be deduced from the study, knowledge of the customer’s situation and needs is an important consideration if the CSE is to be truly empathetic. To walk a mile in another’s shoes requires that, at least, you have an idea of what the shoe looks like.

I believe we do not need more than the images of the dead being ferried away to bring out the feelings of empathy in us. The extent of the devastation caused by COVID-19 should be enough to cause us to know that no matter our various stations in life, we are all on the same ship. If it sinks, we all go down with it. CSEs and customers alike are all being affected by this pandemic. Therefore, this is the time to be more empathetic towards each other.

During and after such a time that this pandemic would be over, we need to learn to walk a mile in the shoes of the one opposite us. If you are a customer, it is important to note that across the counter is not just a CSE but a human being who has also had to go through this pandemic. That person serving you might have gone through a worse experience but has had to put everything aside to serve you. If the one smiles at you, the least you can do is to smile back. If the one is not even smiling, you can give the one a smile of your own.

If you are an employee serving a customer, it is important to note that the individual has also suffered the same fate as you. This mind-set is important as it helps in handling anything that customer throws at you. The customer might be having a bad day and might be giving you hell but that is part of the job of being at the front line and so it must be taken in stride. That customer could have taken his or her business elsewhere but chose to bring it to you, so you must be at least grateful for that. It has been estimated that many businesses will suffer from this pandemic. Many companies might be forced to shut down. Jobs will be lost. Therefore, once a customer still decides to do business with you during and after this period, that customer must be appreciated.

It is fact that the world will not be the same after COVID-19. The lessons this pandemic has taught us, I am sure, we will not forget anytime soon. True, some things will never change. Some things will. Some things will change for good for good. I hope an increase in empathy among frontline staff and the customers they serve is one of those good things that changes for good. For after all, as the science has shown, my pain is your pain.

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