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The Empathy Myth

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

The empathy narrative widely espoused by pundits, experts, and digital software salespersons, what I call The Empathy Myth, claims that Covid-19 has resulted in an increase in lonely customers expressing more of their problems to agents.

It is said that the solution to this new development is to prepare agents to offer 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 new issue for call centers, far more crucial than before the pandemic.

But this mistaken proposition is wholly contrived. And it is indicative of the most significant problem facing the call center industry today.

The reality on the ground.

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

Covid-19 routinely comes up in calls as testing is scheduled and hospital visit protocols are addressed. But rarely (if ever) has a patient or their family member shared anything regarding how Covid-19 has affected their life, such as sadness or despair, which would require an empathic response.

The reality is that there has been no change regarding the need for empathy from before the pandemic to now. I will say that again: the reality is that there has been no change regarding the need for empathy from before the pandemic to now.

While sincere empathy, when called for, is without question essential to a quality customer or patient experience, Covid-19 has not resulted in an increased need for empathy. The need for empathy, when called for, has always been there, and nothing has changed in that regard.

So why do industry pundits so widely espouse the claim that it has?

This question speaks directly to how pundits routinely invent narratives to sidestep our industry's most significant issue regarding the quality of its product and the happiness of its customers, as well as to sell digital products, as I will explain.

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 industry’s most significant challenge regarding the satisfaction of its customers.

I follow industry discourse closely, and no one ever mentions it. The industry seems in denial as pundits and experts do not acknowledge its premier quality challenge and the most significant cause of its perpetual customer dissatisfaction problem.

Subpar customer service and a lack of professionalism are defined by 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, resulting in low customer satisfaction levels.

Pressed for answers to this widespread problem, pundits do not acknowledge the existence of poor agent performance.

Instead, today's standard response is to simplify and reframe the issue into the more manageable idea of an increased need for empathy associated with Covid-19, allowing pundits to avoid confronting the real problem.

Delighting customers and exceeding expectations.

In an industry whose most crucial quality issue is agents who converse in an uncaring and unprofessional manner, the solution proposed by many pundits (and another byproduct of The Great Denial) is to get these same agents to "delight” customers and "exceed expectations."

The thought is not, for example, “We need to teach these agents how to offer quality customer service because right now, they are awful at it.” Instead, the idea is to bypass that requirement and get these same agents to suddenly delight customers and exceed expectations.

This unrealistic proposition completely ignores the necessity of getting poor-performing agents first to stop performing poorly.

Delighting customers and exceeding expectations reminds me of the kid who always says he will do amazing 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. And they want their expectations met, not exceeded. 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 fail to provide this, which is why the industry is plagued with low customer satisfaction levels. Solving this challenge goes far beyond hollow proclamations of delighting customers and exceeding expectations.

And rather than acknowledge that the problem is poor agent performance, pundits blame it on labor challenges, wait times, insufficient technology, and empathy associated with Covid-19. Anything that can be conjured to avoid confronting the real challenge for which they have no answer.

Delighting customers, exceeding expectations, empathy, wait times, and all the rest are deliberate distractions from the primary cause of dissatisfied customers, which is how agents verbally interact with customers.

How The Empathy Myth was created.

As it is espoused exclusively by tech industry salespersons in various forums, it seems evident that The Empathy Myth is the result of agent performance challenges raised in sales and product development meetings as tech companies strive to offer products the call center industry will find valuable.

Recognizing that call center directors describe the issue as their agents sounding like they do not care, lack politeness, lack warmth, etc. (which defines poor service quality), this concern was then simplified and recast as the similar-in-vein but the more manageable idea of agents lacking empathy.

This simplification was necessary to fit the limited scope of digital technology (specifically digital sentiment scoring and scripted screen pop-ups) to pave the way for digital products that might appeal to this high market demand challenge.

Covid-19 was identified as a common circumstance wherein empathy might be a relevant issue, and the sales teams had their narrative: Covid-19 has resulted in an increased need for empathy, and we have stuff for sale to try to address that.

But the problem was never a lack of empathy. It is an overall 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 each call lesser-performing agents handle each day. It is how they sound throughout their calls.

The solution to that problem, the real problem (of which a lack of empathy is only an occasional byproduct), requires meticulously managing how agents talk with customers. It cannot be done with a digital program.

And the call center industry's premier customer satisfaction challenge cannot be redefined to suit a marketing message. It remains what it is.

Today, there is no need for increased empathy due to Covid-19. Instead, there is a need for call centers to discontinue offering subpar service due to their agents communicating with a lack of professionalism, caring, respect, warmth, and politeness.

This is the real problem The Empathy Myth was deliberately created to distract from.

Why it matters.

The Empathy Myth, The Great Denial, Delighting Customers, Exceeding Expectations, and the rest have tremendously impacted the call center industry. By failing to acknowledge its premier customer satisfaction problem, the industry spends enormous investment on approaches and products that have no chance of fixing it.

This is evidenced by perpetually disappointing customer satisfaction levels as pundits, experts, and tech salespersons continue to parrot the same outdated ideas that have proven unable to solve the problem.

The call center industry is a human industry that produces human connections, primarily through verbal interactions over the phone. Today much is being done to marginalize the industry's human essence by discounting the value of agents and the importance of how they talk to customers.

As a direct result, despite endless promises of technology coming to the rescue, the quality of the call center product is steadily declining industry-wide.

For the call center industry to progress, it must embrace what it is; a vehicle for people to talk to each other on the phone. And it must accept that its product quality, customer satisfaction levels, and overall success are determined mainly by how well its agents verbally interact with its customers.

No amount of denial or invented narratives will make that fact go away.


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