The Empathy Myth

Today’s prevalent discourse regarding empathy is a perfect example of how the call center industry sometimes goes astray regarding some of its most crucial agent performance issues.

What I call The Empathy Myth, widely espoused by pundits, is that Covid-19 has resulted in customers expressing more of their problems to agents, which requires empathic responses, for example, “I know this must be painful for you” or, “I am sorry to hear you are having to go through this.” And as such, it is said that empathy is a newly important issue for call centers.

But this mistaken idea is purely conjecture. And it is indicative of the most significant problem facing the call center industry today, as I will explain.

As has been our daily routine for years before the pandemic to today, my staff and I have spent thousands of hours meticulously reviewing thousands of recordings of hospital call center agents from many hospital networks interacting with patients and their family members on the phone. This is all we do each day.

Covid-19 often comes up in these calls as testing is scheduled and hospital visit protocols are addressed. But rarely has a patient or their family member shared anything regarding how Covid-19 has affected their life, such as sadness or despair, that would require an empathic response. There has been no change regarding the need for empathy from before the pandemic to now.

We have proven that Covid-19 has not resulted in an increased need for empathy. So why do industry pundits so widely espouse the idea that it has?

This question speaks directly to how the call center industry fails to acknowledge its most significant weakness and most impactful variable regarding the quality of its product and the happiness of its customers.

The Great Denial

It begins with what I call The Great Denial, and it goes like this: agents who offer poor customer service and sorely lack professionalism are prevalent throughout our industry. They are the call center industry’s most significant challenge regarding the quality of its product.

I follow industry discourse closely, and no one ever mentions it. The industry seems in denial as it fails to acknowledge its premier product quality challenge and the most significant cause of its widespread customer dissatisfaction.

Poor customer service and a lack of professionalism are manifested in how agents talk to customers. They sound as if they are going through the motions, do not sincerely care, and communicate in an unprofessional manner. This makes customers feel that the organization does not care about them, and the direct result is low customer satisfaction levels industry-wide.

Pressed for answers to this critical problem, pundits do not mention poor agent performance. Instead, the issue has been simplified, recreated, and redefined into an increased need for empathy associated with the topic of Covid-19.

This false presumption barely scratches the surface of the problem it is intended to address.

The call center industry’s premier customer dissatisfaction problem, how agents verbally interact with customers, is far more complex and demanding than giving them simple scripted phrases to use in the rare occurrence when an outward display of empathy is called for.

The futility of delighting customers

Another byproduct of this dynamic is the misguided idea of delighting customers. In an industry whose most crucial quality issue is agents who converse in an uncaring and unprofessional manner, the solution proposed by many is to get these agents to somehow “delight” customers.

The thought, for example, is not, “We need to teach these agents how to offer good customer service because right now, they are awful at it.” Instead, the idea is to bypass that and get these same agents to suddenly delight customers, ignoring the necessity of getting them first to stop performing poorly.

Delighting customers reminds me of the kid who always says he will do tremendous things one day but refuses to get a job. It is all talk and no substance.

The truth is that customers do not want to be delighted. They want quality service that is professional, warm, and respectful. They want organizations to have their acts together and offer them competent customer service so they can get on with their day. Too many call centers today fail to provide this, which is precisely why the industry is plagued with low customer satisfaction levels. Solving this challenge goes far beyond hollow proclamations of delighting customers.

And rather than acknowledging that the problem is poor agent performance, pundits blame it on wait times, insufficient technology, labor shortages, and anything else that can be conjured.

Delighting customers, empathy, wait times, and the rest distract from the primary cause of dissatisfied customers, which is how agents talk with customers. In the process, the primary cause of dissatisfied customers is ignored, and customers remain dissatisfied.

Newsflash: it is not the wait times; it is the agents.

How empathy is misconstrued

This is how The Empathy Myth came to be: agent performance challenges are often raised in sales and product development meetings as digital companies strive to provide products that call centers will find valuable.

Recognizing that call center directors often describe the issue as their agents sounding like they do not care, lack politeness, lack warmth, etc., this was then recast as the far more manageable but similar-in-vein idea of agents lacking empathy.

A situation was sought whereby empathy would routinely be required in calls, and Covid-19 was identified as the best candidate. Scripted phrases were put together to address it, and the team had their answer to the problem.

But the problem is not a lack of empathy. It is a lack of caring. And whereas a lack of empathy might occur in the occasional instance where it is required, a lack of caring, politeness, and warmth occurs in each moment of every call poor-performing agents handle each day. It is how they sound throughout their calls.

The solution to that problem, the real problem, requires meticulously managing how agents talk. That requires the expertise of a communications specialist. It cannot be done with a digital program.

And the problem cannot be simplified, recreated, and redefined as something more manageable, like empathy, simply because one does not know how to solve it.

Today, there is no need for increased empathy due to Covid-19. Instead, there is a need for call centers to stop offering unsatisfactory customer service due to their agents talking with customers with a lack of caring and respect, warmth, politeness, and professionalism. That is the problem The Empathy Myth was purposely created to distract from.

Why it matters

The Empathy Myth, The Great Denial, Delighting Customers, and all that goes with it have tremendously impacted the call center industry. By failing to acknowledge its premier challenge, the industry spends enormous time and investment on approaches and products that have little chance of fixing it.

The call center industry is a human industry that produces human connections. Today much is being done to marginalize the industry’s human essence, primarily by discounting the value of agents and ignoring the importance and power of how they talk to customers. As a direct result, despite decades-long promises of technology coming to the rescue, the quality of the call center product is in steady decline.

For the call center industry to progress, it must embrace what it is; a vehicle for people to talk to each other. And it must acknowledge that its product quality and overall success are determined mainly by how well its agents talk with its customers. No amount of denial can make that fact go away.