It is likely each and one of us have had some good as well as bad customer service interactions in the past. Think about it, what made them bad, and what made them good? Do you still remember the positive, or just the negative ones?

Often it is the long wait times, but often it is the agents being plain rude. But sometimes, the long wait times are way less annoying – why?

It could be because the customer agent on the other end empathizes with you. After all, it is our emotions that trigger our behavior and how we act in certain situations.

Trying times like the Covid-19 pandemic can make life of customer service teams much harder. Budget cuts and anxious consumers require extra attention and empathy from customer support agents. Since July 2020, the average customer service interaction scored “difficult” more than doubled, according to a study conducted by Harvard Business Review.

So, what can businesses do to make sure customers are happy with the service? One extremely important aspect is showing empathy in customer service.

In this article, we’ll focus on why empathy is so important in customer service, how it can be a low-cost competitive differentiator, and how to remain empathetic towards customers.

Key facts on empathy in customer service 

  • Negative emotions are more likely to be remembered than positive one
  • Customers who feel strong positive emotions will feel more satisfied with the service they have received, will demonstrate increased loyalty, and provide exceptional word of mouth references.

What is empathy? 

Empathy as a whole is the ability to understand what the other person is feeling and thinking, based on their body language, facial expressions and tone of voice. When taken apart, empathy comes in several forms and layers.

And it isn’t only important in customer service, but in all aspects of business, from empathy in marketing to empathizing with employees.

Let’s go through different types of empathy to better understand what empathy is and how to use it best in customer service.

Different types of empathy (in customer service)

Empathy can be split into different types. There are two main stages which are cognitive and emotional empathy. However, empathy can come in several other forms. Below we’re going to cover three different types, so it is easier to understand what is appropriate in certain customer situations.

For example, when you are on the phone with the customer, you can’t see their body language and should focus on their tone of voice. And when dealing with customers face-to-face on the shop floor, body language can be the giveaway.

Like not all emotions of happiness and fear are the same, it is important to note that not all empathy feels the same either. Like emotions, empathy can take different forms.

  1. Cognitive empathy

Cognitive empathy is about knowing what the other person is feeling and thinking. When we practice cognitive empathy, we try to understand what the other person is going through and what happened.

For example, your friend has just lost their job. You can see, feel and understand that they are sad about it. Then you would ask questions to understand more about how they are feeling and what they are experiencing.

In customer service, we would implement the same approach. We would first try to find out more about their problem to get a sense of how they are feeling.

For example, your customer is frustrated that they have received a faulty product and requests a refund. This information can be used in the next stage – emotional empathy.

  1. Emotional or affective empathy

The second stage – emotional empathy – is when you express yourself and show that you acknowledge what the other person is feeling or going through. Based on the information gathered in the first stage – cognitive empathy – you can respond in the best way possible.

For example, you now know the customer is calling regarding a faulty product. You know this evokes anger, upset and frustration. Sensing from the tone of their voice, they are upset about it.

Now you know how to act in this situation, acknowledging that is best done in two simple steps:

  1. By saying “It seems like…” and then stating the problem can diffuse any negative feelings and acknowledge their emotions. Continuing with “…you are frustrated about receiving the faulty product, and that is understandable”.


  1. Mirroring – repeating back (in part) what they said can reassure them that you understood their problem correctly, increasing trust. By saying: “You have received a faulty product, and you would like to request a refund”. 

This brings us to the next stage: compassionate empathy.

  1. Compassionate empathy

Compassionate empathy is when we don’t only acknowledge and understand how they feel, but also take action to mitigate their issue. Now, this stage is very important in customer service.

For example, the customer wants to be understood (cognitive empathy) and wants to be acknowledged (emotional empathy), but at the same time, they don’t want you to burst into tears on the other end of the line (also emotional empathy).

What they do want is compassionate empathy. Customers want to be acknowledged, but also want their problems solved. Combining them is the best way to approach any situation.

If you can’t offer a full solution to their problem, remaining empathic from the beginning will leave customers feeling more positive either way, because they have been understood and acknowledged.

Difference between empathy and sympathy

Although they may seem interchangeable, there is a difference between empathy and sympathy. Empathy is the ability to really imagine, understand and feel what the other person is going through. To be able to put yourself in their shoes and imagine experiencing what they are going through, without actually experiencing it.

Sympathy, on the other hand, is the ability to respond to the other person with a supportive reaction, without completely understanding their situation. Not fully understanding the other person from their perspective, ​​but understanding them mostly from your own perspective. 

How to ensure empathy in customer service

So, now we know what empathy is. We have also defined different stages of empathy and gone through how and when to apply each type in customer service. The question is, how to make sure customer service teams use empathy in their customer interactions on a daily basis?

Let’s have a look at how to properly train your employees and build up a customer service team where empathy is ingrained in the company culture. For example, for Zappos, an online footwear and clothing retailer, customer focus and empathy were at the heart of their strategy from the start.

Benefits of empathy in customer service include increased customer satisfaction and customer loyalty. You can also benefit from turning negative customers into promoters, increasing word-of-mouth marketing and brand loyalty.

  • Build an empathetic customer service team

For some people, empathy comes naturally and is a part of their personality.

Hiring the people who have these traits can be one way to build up an empathic customer service team. Recruiters can develop ways to attract talent through employer branding, as a customer-focused company.

  • Offer empathy training

However, empathy can also be developed. Naturally, it is impossible to build a customer service team based purely on the empathic traits of people. It is hard enough to hire well-fitting team members with appropriate skill sets.

Therefore, offering relevant training to your customer service team is a great idea. Research has shown that empathy isn’t all about genetics, and that empathy in fact can be taught. Empathy training can include body language, mindfulness and listening skills training.

Analysis suggests that 20% of employees offer this kind of training. Harvard Business Review Global Empathy Index found that Top 10 of the most empathetic companies generate 50% more revenue than the ones at the bottom of the list. Top companies in this list: LinkedIn, Tesla, and Ford, all offer employee empathy training.

  • Offer feedback sessions to your employees

In order to guide your customer service agents and get a feeling for which customer issues they are struggling with, it is a good idea to ask them which customer issues are the most troublesome for them.

Asking your customer service team to run through common tasks your customers carry out one on one, like problems with difficult customers or more tricky and time-consuming customer issues. Then, going through what they found difficult about these situations, and what could have been said differently.

  • Create an empathy manual

Along with offering staff training on empathy, it is a great idea to have a training manual specifically for it. So customer support teams, as well as other teams, can use it to improve their interactions with customers and remember to always apply an empathetic approach.


Apple, for example, has even created their own empathy training manual, an insight into how companies can excel in customer service through innovative solutions. This guide teaches how to pick up on the customer body language and tone of voice, to then adjust their behavior accordingly.

What is more, the best ecommerce platforms for small and medium-sized businesses offer guidance on how to provide best customer service for businesses using their platform. For example, Shopify customer service guide that accentuates empathy.

This can also enhance customer experience and keep brand communication consistent across departments, connecting customer service and marketing.

  • Collect customer feedback

Another way to have some insights into how your customers are feeling about the customer service the company is providing, customer feedback collection is an excellent idea. Dinesh Agarwal, CEO of RecurPost says “Customer feedback is important for any business to identify needs and preference of customers. By improving these areas business can build trust and healthy relationships with the customers”.

Going through general customer feedback surveys and previous problematic cases, can indicate a pattern. Whether customers were happy with the service and if in fact, the issue was the solution. Or the problem was that customer support simply lacked empathy in their communication.

Reviewing this can show what customers are feeling during the conversation. What is more, you could also include a question, specifically asking how they felt during the interaction.

  • Create a culture of empathy

This one is crucial. If you create a culture of empathy from the start, other employees will follow. A culture of empathy within a company has proven to improve collaboration, therefore yielding better results.

If employees can work together as a team, it helps to deliver outstanding results.

It is also estimated that employee satisfaction is higher in companies putting focus on empathy.

What is more, if employees receive an empathetic approach, the more likely it is they are willing to mirror this behavior also during customer interactions. The culture of empathy starts at the top, so make sure management is setting the right example.

Customer empathy as a competitive advantage

All in all, empathy in customer service starts with listening to what your customers are saying. Without it, you can’t even get close to understanding what issue they have and how they are feeling.

It is also about reading between the lines, not only focusing on what they are saying, but also on how they are acting: their body language, their facial expressions and their tone of voice.

Furthermore, research has shown that negative emotions tend to last the longest, leaving lasting impressions. And that isn’t a good thing. If a customer leaves with a bitter taste in their mouth, they may never return.

Therefore, it is extremely important to show empathy, so customers can experience a feeling of happiness and associate your company with a positive experience in the future.

With so many aspects out of our control, such as budget cuts of consumer behavior and rise in competition, empathy can be a low-cost differentiator when it comes to a positive customer service experience.