Why Efficient Customer Service Can (and Should) Be Powered by Empathy

Why Efficient Customer Service Can (and Should) Be Powered by Empathy

The customer service puzzle.Exceptional customer service has always rested on creating personal, human connections with customers. But that doesn’t give any store a free pass to be inefficient.

In fact, one of the most empathetic things you can do for customers is to optimize how you provide support. Doing so pays you back in multiple ways: you’ll help customers save time, reduce the number of unnecessary requests, and use their feedback to improve the overall shopping experience.

If you stick to delivering individual “wow” moments, you won’t get nearly the same impact. Most importantly, optimization doesn’t have to come at the expense of quality. Here are three key ways to apply the lens of efficiency to how you support your customers.

Track conversations to solve the root cause

While there’s a time and a place for delight, the real value of customer service is its ability to surface otherwise hidden problems.

When customers buy from your business, an “issue-free” experience is implied. Of course, it’s not something you can actually guarantee. Problems will occur despite your best efforts; the real problem is not having a way to fix the root cause for future customers.

Customers who encounter a problem are unlikely to contact you unless it costs them money or it prevents them from getting what they paid for. As the silent majority, these customers are represented by the few voices that do choose to speak up. For every contact you receive, remember a number of other people are likely having the same problem, they’re just not telling you.

Even the problems you do hear about have to be properly interpreted. Not every customer issue will raise its hand and say, “I’m a problem you need to solve!” Sometimes you’re dealing with problems camouflaged as trivial questions. While the end result of handling these requests is usually “just” a loss of time, in the early days of running a store your time and attention are your most precious resources; you have to use them wisely.

Not every customer issue will raise its hand and say, “I’m a problem you need to solve!”

For example, if an average of one customer per day contacts you for details about one of your products, and it takes you an average of four minutes to type a response, that’s nearly half an hour eaten up per week and two hours spent per month.

No big deal, you genuinely enjoy helping customers. But then your business starts to grow, and you begin receiving three contacts per day about the same product. Are you okay sinking six hours per month “solving” a problem you could have fixed outright by updating your product description?

And think of the time customers wasted contacting you when they didn’t need to. This is why we say “efficient” customer service can be driven by empathy: you’re not looking to avoid customers, you’re looking to avoid problems. Customers don’t want to contact you about something as mundane as product details. When you use customer service to eliminate these low-value conversations, you make room for more delightful ones.

💡 Key Idea: Create a system to track the customer issues you hear about more than once. If you’re not using a dedicated support tool like a help desk, even a simple spreadsheet or a Trello board will do. If you, or your team, find yourselves solving the same problem over and over, find and fix the root cause so customers don’t have to contact you.

Strive for solution-driven apologies

Even apologizing to customers, an act seemingly contingent on a sincere emotional connection, still benefits from a logical, problem-solving lens.

To give you the G-Rated version, “stuff” happens. When it does, you’ll feel bad. You don’t like running into issues when you’re making a purchase, so the empathy for your customers is built-in. You may be inclined to spend a ton of time apologizing, especially if it’s a fairly large mistake. Tread carefully.

It’s not that you should adopt a Machiavellian support strategy where you’re more feared than loved. The truth is simply that apologies only go so far. As detailed in a study published in the Journal of Marketing Research, researchers found apologies that lasted longer than a few seconds began to grate on customers’ ears. Perhaps more important, it was a rep’s willingness and ingenuity in searching for a solution that mattered more to customers than their apology.

Coming off as uncaring when you don’t mean to is the worst possible outcome.

This is what’s usually known as “Advocacy”, or making the customer feel like you’re on their side by championing their concern and being active in identifying potential solutions. Advocacy works because it’s easy to identify and understand; it’s felt through action, and through descriptions of attempted action. According to the research, it most often occurs during the “Seeking” phase of a customer interaction:

  • Sensing: At the start of a conversation, where you ask questions in order to pinpoint what caused the customer’s issue.
  • Seeking: After the problem is identified, where you explore what can feasibly be done to solve the problem.
  • Settling: After solutions are surfaced, where you work with the customer to decide on the best outcome.

    Telling a customer what solutions you’ve explored can even make them more receptive to a non-ideal outcome. If a customer can see the logic that led you to suggest what you did, they’ll be more understanding. If you offer a lackluster solution with no context, they’ll assume you’re trying to boot them out the door.

    Coming off as uncaring when you don’t mean to is the worst outcome. So don’t do it: instead of expecting a placating “We’re sorry!” to do all the work for you, take control of the situation, show the customer you’re motivated to identify real solutions, and suggest the best next step.

    Even a sincere apology delivered on its own can often feel likeMitchell RL a "dead end in disguise" to a person who's asking for help. It's important to remember the reason they've reached out for help in the first place is that they've come to a dead end already. They often aren't sure what their options are for moving forward, or how to decide which option is best.

    Following up a sincere apology with next steps is key to navigating tough interactions empathetically. First, this approach acknowledges the complexity of their situation and any emotions they may be feeling. Second (and more importantly), it shifts the focus and tone of the conversation back towards addressing the problem at hand. It builds common ground instead of focusing on how frustrating dealing with said problem may be.

    —Mitchell Rossit-Lavigne, Support Lead on Shopify’s Guru Team

    Research published by Dixon, Ponomareff, Turner, and DeLisi also strongly supports this strategy. They found that on many customer service teams, the personality type known as “The Controller” was the most consistently effective in creating positively-rated interactions.

    Controllers differentiate themselves by being empathetic but opinionated, as they often direct the conversation and reduce ambiguity by pointing customers to a shortlist of good options, rather than overwhelming them with choices. As the chart below shows, although many businesses employ and look to hire “Empathizers,” they might do well to seek out empathetic people willing to take charge for customers and lead them to solutions.

    Customer service personalities.

    This emphasis on guidance and reducing effort—including the energy customers spend making a decision—is what creates such highly-rated interactions. Lack of empathy is not the catalyst, it’s about how empathy is applied toward the pursuit of a solution.

    💡 Key Idea: Although owning your mistakes with an apology is the right thing to do, ownership also means getting past the problem and moving on to what customers really care about: solutions. Don’t overwhelm with choice. Instead, show your advocacy by providing a concrete list of good options and make a firm recommendation for the next steps a customer should take.

    Prioritize conversations by importance

    Many industries have found it difficult to draw a clear line between customer service, customer success, and inbound sales, and there’s a reason: they all deal with conversations, just in different ways at different points in the customer journey.

    If you send out an email broadcast that links to your store and then activate live chat to greet your subscribers and answer questions, what category is that? For the small store owner, does it even matter?

    Point being, talking to customers can be valuable to your business at multiple stages. Great customer service can reduce returns or save sales already made, while more proactive help can generate sales by alleviating concerns through answered questions. The connection they share? Customers receive value from the help you provide.

    If your support strategy is limited to the “warm fuzzies,” you'll end up leaving customers out in the cold.

    The onus is on you to decide the level of help a browser or buyer should receive depending on where they are in the purchasing process. Questions that aren’t time-sensitive or outright blocking a purchase can be handled through FAQ pages and help docs. General support questions are often best managed via email so you can track what comes in and keep your queue nice and orderly.

    But conversations close to the sale? Especially for high-ticket items? You may want to create email filters to surface them quickly, or rely on a more immediate channel like live chat or messaging. There won’t be different teams to make this distinction for you when you’re a entrepreneur who’s just getting started; you’ll just have to decide what works for your business.

    💡 Key Idea: Inertia is what often stops people from buying. Their reservations mostly take the form of questions they ask themselves, but these questions come in various levels of urgency. The channels you use to talk to your customers have to fit your business as there’s no one-size-fits-all solution.

    Empathetic efficiency

    Mixing the phrases above seems like it’d result in a paradoxical cocktail. How can you possibly reconcile an assembly-line perspective with an empathy-driven business function like customer service?

    That all changes when you realize that while customers enjoy and even reward great customer service, no one starts their day hoping to talk to a business. There will always be irritable chats, prioritized conversations, and challenging situations you’ll have to manage effectively. If your support strategy is limited to the “warm fuzzies,” you may end up leaving customers out in the cold.

    About the Author

    Gregory Ciotti is on the editorial team at Shopify. He's always on the lookout for uncommonly good stories and advice: editor@shopify.com

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