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Empathy and customer service: Call center agent training or scripting?

Is agent empathy in call centers something you can improve with scripting? I am especially curious about call center agents who deal with customer assistance in emergencies. Or is empathy something you need to work on by getting reps to "feel" more empathetic on the phone, which will translate into the entire conversation with the customer? What do you think is the best approach?

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Empathy is a human emotion that is difficult to teach. Call center scripts are effective for directing conversations, but not for communicating empathy. To the contrary, call center agents who are forced to adhere to the exact wording of a script often sound stilted.

Agents who express a real understanding of a customer's issue -- an emergency situation, family tragedy or the need for an immediate loan -- are effectively displaying empathy in their customer service. Repeatedly telling a customer that "you feel their pain," while reading from a script, is very different. Customers relate better to call center agents who demonstrate genuine supportiveness and are there to help the customer throughout an interaction. This is true for all customer service interactions and it's even more important in emergency or emotional situations.

The best call center agents are inherently empathetic. However, empathy is a skill that can be taught in communications training courses, through extensive role playing. (I suggest that you use your most empathetic call center agents to assist with the role-playing exercises.) Once agents complete the training, it's essential to measure, evaluate and reward them for appropriately demonstrating empathy in customer service in addition to all other productivity and quality goals. Take a look at this other recent answer to a related Q&A regarding agents and customer service empathy.

This was first published in August 2007

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