How to Build a More Customer-Centered, Empathetic Workforce

When you call customer service you want to know 2 things:  (1) Does the person who picked up your call care about you and your issue? and (2) Are they capable of fixing it?

You don’t have to be a customer service expert to know within 20 seconds whether the guy on the other end of the phone cares and is eager to help.

When we work with customer service departments, empathy is always identified as a top MIT (Most Important Thing). And yet it’s also one of the hardest set of behaviors to train.

A Best Practice For Training Empathy (Care About Real Lives)

I recently did a follow-up visit to a client who had invested in one of our Winning Well Operations Excellence Rallies. They had identified “Does the Customer Know How Much We Care?” as a top MIT, and set about isolating the behaviors and building a focus on empathy into their training, performance management, and recognition systems.

They built a confidence burst approach to encourage empathy. One day the representatives came in to find signs of a missing baby all over the office: a crocheted bootie, a pacifier, and some randomly scattered signs, “Has anyone seen baby Carl?” “What happened to baby Carl?” The representatives were intrigued. The entire center was talking about the baby Carl mystery during lunch breaks and between calls.

The managers had fun with this for a few days and then did what they call “the reveal.” They transferred the calls to another center for a few minutes and brought in “Baby Carl,” a carefully swaddled doll. “Remember how much you were worried about baby Carl? That’s how concerned we need to be about every customer’s issue. Every customer has real life concerns like small babies to take care of or sick friends and family.

Baby Carl represents our mission to show our customers how much we care. Every call should start with CARL–Care About Real Lives.”

As weeks went on, and a representative exhibited extraordinary empathy on a call– when they showed how much they CARLed (now a verb), they were awarded the Baby Carl recognition, had their picture take with Carl who stayed on their desk until someone was able to “steal” him back with a similarly empathetic call.

Every time someone won the Baby Carl award, the management team communicated exactly HOW the representative had shown empathy. Each selfie snapped with Baby Carl reinforced the behaviors they were looking to emulate. Representatives gained more confidence and competence as they showed up more consistently as someone who Cares About Real Lives.

One thing great leaders do is make the invisible, visible. Want your employees to show more empathy? Find ways to consistently make empathy visible, and celebrate the impact.

customer experience

What To Do When The Customer is Wrong

The only problem with the concept, “The customer is always right,” is that sometimes they’re wrong.

If you’ve been in any kind of customer-facing position, I know you’re with me.

Sure, there are many, many circumstances where the only choice is to bite your tongue and concede, for the good of the customer experience.

But some wrong is just, well…wrong.

It takes confident humility to stand up to a customer when they’re doing something unethical, immoral, or discriminatory. Winning Well managers know that the MIT (most important thing) at a time like that is to stand clearly on the side of right.

Rick, the retired Amtrak conductor I met on my Southwest flight did just that.

When Employees are More Important Than Customers

My assistant conductor, Loretta came to me and said matter-of-factly, “There’s a guy in the second car, who refuses to give me his ticket.”

“Does he have a ticket?” I asked.

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he does.”

“Why won’t he give it to you?” I continued, now sensing an undercurrent of hurt beneath her frustration, as the color drained from her dark skin.

“Well, I have a theory.”

“I’ll be right back.”

I approached the old, balding man, “Hi Sir, the other conductor said you refused to give her your ticket.”

He laughed, “Oh, I’m happy to give it YOU. I just won’t give it HER.”

“Well then, you have a problem. You see Loretta is the only one who takes the tickets. But since yours is the next stop. I’ll take it this time.”

“Oh no, I’m getting off in Albany.”

“No sir, you are getting off at the next stop. And if you refuse, I’ll be happy to make a phone call to get you some help getting off.”

I then held the train at the next stop and explained the situation to the agent at the ticket window. He could feel free to refund his money, but under no circumstances was he to sell the meanie a ticket.

Winning Well Karin Hurt and David DyeRick sent a clear message to Loretta, her peers and all the customers watching the spectacle. Loretta’s dignity is what mattered most. Bigotry, even from a paying customer, was completely unacceptable.

Rick was Winning Well.

When the customer is wrong. Say so.

Everyone is watching your next move.

The Amazing Side Effect of Make-It-Right Customer Service

I thought I was getting ahead of the blizzard, After all, the snow wasn’t supposed to start until Friday morning. But apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking Thursday morning was a good time to slip out to our local Trader Joes. Every register was open and the every line stretched all the way to the back of the store. I had to give them credit–they had clearly planned for the onslaught and called in reinforcements.

Knowing that customers weren’t happy, the manager was getting on the microphone being a merry as possible.

“Hey everybody, oh my gosh, did you hear it’s going to snow?”

 A few minutes later she was back on the mic.

“Okay raise your hand if you are number 7 in your line.”

We all worked together to count. Nice distraction.

“Wow! Just wow! Today is your special day! Everyone of you in the number 7 spot gets a candy bar.”

She approached the #7s behind me, “Can you share?” The skinny 70 somethings behind me looked at her longingly and she caved, “Okay here’s two.”

She was clearly trying, and empowered.

After about 45 minutes, I was next in line. The woman in front of me tried to pay with her smartphone and it completely crashed the computer register in my lane which I had already observed was lane 8, #justincasetherewasanothercontest. At this point I was hungry.

They had to call headquarters IT. After 10 minutes of trouble shooting, I turned to the candy-bar-crunching 70-something- number-7s behind me.

“Okay, they were doing great, but now this is a fiasco.  I’m a leadership and organizational effectiveness consultant, here’s what I think they need to do next… I’m so ready to go give them some free consulting. Do you think that would be rude?”

They were all ears on my plan, so we began chatting about how I could offer to help in the spirit of being useful vs. obnoxious.

As it turned out no intervention was necessary. The jolly manager once again grabbed the mic.

“Okay, so this happened…. we have a lane down, so here’s what we’re going to do. If you’re in lane 8 raise your hand.”

We were all ears in lane 8, and eagerly raised our hands in surrender. Everyone else just rolled their eyes.

“First of all, if you are in lane 8, Steve here is going to come by and ask you what your favorite Trader Joe’s item is. He’s going to go get it for you and you will get that for free.”

But here’s where the rest of you come in. Some of these folks in lucky lane 8 have been waiting for nearly an hour just like you. So, you don’t have to do this, but if you would be willing to let them step in front of you, raise both of your hands (yup, that’s how many feet of snow we’re getting), and you too will get your favorite Trader Joe’s item for free. Raised hands all around, and the people began chatting and moving in an orderly fashion.

Her plan trumped mine by a landslide.

The lady next to me kindly let me step in front. We both got our steaks for free.

As my new cashier was ringing me up, she was all smiles.

“How great is this?” She questioned. “Can you imagine ANY OTHER grocery store that would respond this way?

We both knew the answer.

“This is why I work here.”