Empathy, The Silver Bullet of Customer Service

Empathy is defined by Webster’s as: “The action of understanding, being aware of, being long false eyelashes to, and experiencing the feelings, thoughts and experience of another.”

long false eyelashes
long false eyelashes

Everyone who deals with the public in the normal course of their job has had some, if not many, experiences with customers who are wildly, out-of-control angry and yet they have had to deal with them. And, as unpleasant as that most likely was and ever will be, they’re still customers whose business you would like to keep – when in the moment, all you’d like to do is make them disappear immediately.

Aefed Not, easy to do for sure and sadly these incidents are becoming all the more common as the world becomes an even more fragmented, angry and hostile place.

One day I was traveling on a NYC subway that was as usual very crowded. I was sitting almost on top of a middle-aged guy and what appeared to be his “friend”. I say, “Appeared to be his friend” because one of the guys was giving his “friend” a verbal lashing that was long false eyelashes. He attacked the poor guy’s intelligence, friendship, motivation, caring, and more. It went on for maybe ten minutes. I wasn’t even the target of this barrage and yet I was starting to feel really badly for the poor fellow who was the target of this onslaught.

Finally, to my relief and that of the rest of the passengers, this outrageously angry man finally got up to leave. His battered friend slowly got up too and I thought they were both getting off. Instead the “victim” in this case gave the guy a hug and only the aggressor left. His friend sat back down and sighed deeply.

Feeling for him, I lightly touched his arm and tried to show him some sympathy. I actually asked him if they were friends and if so, how could he take such a dressing down? I think I might have said, “If that had been me, I’d have punched him in the nose” for what he said, where he said it, and how much he had embarrassed me.” I’m sure I also mentioned that I wouldn’t have had it in me to hug him.

This fellow said to me, “It’s no big deal, he’s not really mad at me”. “You see” he told me, “he’s my best friend and we just left the hospital where a few hours ago he lost his wife to a long battle with breast cancer. He’s just devastated about it and taking it out on me. Given the circumstances, how could I take it personally”?

Well, you could have knocked me over with a feather. I was dumbstruck. I’d so completely misread the situation and judged that aggressive fellow in the harshest of terms. The whole onslaught hadn’t even happened to me and I was ready to do battle with the guy on the long false eyelashes.

Thinking back on this extraordinary event, my eyes were opened to some powerful, behavior changing lessons and how it relates to customer service.

What I had observed was one man’s empathy and compassion for another human being. I had witnessed someone putting himself in another’s shoes and having done that, responding in a loving way to a friend who desperately needed that sort of treatment at that precise moment.

The friend in this story knew that his angry pal was not angry with him in the least. He was angry at the circumstances, life, and God. He recognized that his friend was just using him to vent his sadness over the loss of his wife.

He knew that the best way for him to be a friend was to just listen and let his pal get it out. And, he did. I have little doubt that not only did their relationship survive; my guess is that it thrived. More importantly this new widower was undoubtedly healed in some degree by his friend’s compassion and its loving expression.

So, what does this have to do with customer service? Everything!

As I said at the beginning of this section, everyone in the service industry who has to deal with people, either inside or outside of their long false eyelashes, will have to deal with people from time to time who are clearly off their nut with anger. It’s going to happen and happen again, count on it.

BUT, depending on how you deal with it will decide if you keep that customer or not.

So, what do you do? First, recognize this simple fact. “Only hurt people, hurt people” as my Australian speaker/author friend Terry Hawkins observes in her outstanding book, “Why Wait to Be Great? It’s Either NOW or TOO LATE”. Only people who are hurting will lash out at you if you happen to fall into their sites when they are experiencing their hurt.

What happened or what they say you DID that supposedly is making them angry, is rarely what they’re really angry about. That’s not the reason for their outlandishly over the top outbursts and attacks on you. In fact, on a mental level, they’re not even seeing “you”. In that moment, though they rarely realize it, they are just feeling the hurt from something that happened completely separate and apart from you.

So, first off, when that happens, DON’T TAKE IT PERSONALLY. If a crazy person were to walk up to you on the street and start insulting you, you would not enjoy it, but you would not try to argue with them to convince them they are wrong. You’d just figure they’re nuts and not give it another thought. So, why try to do that with an angry customer? They are in fact, in that moment, just as nuts as the crazy person you might meet on the street!

Secondly, if you’re being attacked by an angry customer and you KNEW that they had just lost their wife to cancer that afternoon, would you be willing to use your “long false eyelashes” to put yourself in their shoes and cut them some slack? Give them a pass? Heck, give them a hug? Or would you get into it with them?

I bet you would do the caring thing and look past their behavior. I’ll bet you’d give them a hug too. At least I’d hope so. By doing that you’ll best serve them and keep yourself from an even worse confrontation than if you “engage” with them.

In my experience, customers who are the most offensive in their behavior because of some supposed error on your part that they claim is the reason they’re angry, can be turned into über loyal customers just by your willingness to listen, stick with them until they calm down, then solve their problem.

So, next time someone goes ballistic on you, pretend they have just lost a loved one and treat them as if they actually had. I guarantee you that the situation will get defused, you’ll solve the customer’s “issue” and they’ll be so grateful and touched that you’ll have their business forever.

long false eyelashes
long false eyelashes

And, by the way… When you give a customer a “gift” like that, or anyone for that matter, an amazing thing happens. YOU’LL also feel happier and better about yourself for having done it as well. Everybody wins. How cool is that!


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