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