Article > Operations

Treating Customers with Empathy

By Gary Naples


Editor's Note: This is the third article in a series on customer service. The first article, Creating Customer Loyalty: Are Your Customers Really Happy With Your Service, as well as the second, Bridging The Reliability Gap, can be found online at

A common mistake made by many businesses is a homogeneous approach to their customers. So it comes with little surprise that some parts suppliers are no different in their attitudes toward their customers.

This brings us to the next "serviqual" dimension requisite for providing outstanding customer service. The dimension is empathy. The researchers at Texas A&M University define empathy as "the degree of caring and the individual attention customers receive from you, the parts department and the dealership." Like assurance, the serviqual dimension "empathy" is a broader classification created by the researchers from three of the original ten dimensions they identified for measuring customer's perception of service quality. The three I'm referring to are (1) the ability to access all company employees; (2) the ability to communicate with company employees; and most important, (3) the employees' understanding of the customer and his or her specific needs.

The parts stores and parts suppliers - or any business for that matter - that treat customers with empathy whenever the circumstances arise do so because they are capable of making distinctions between each customer and the customer's own needs. They readily accept and understand that their needs, wants, expectations, emotions, attitudes and perceptions are as unique as each and every one of their customers. In sharp contrast, other parts stores and parts suppliers view the customer as merely "the customer."

Since no two customers behave alike, their emotional state is a big clue to their specific service needs. No one wants to be treated impersonally as simply "the customer" by an automaton-like store employee. The relationship between being empathetic and giving quality service is recognizing and cueing in on the customers' emotions in order to determine the best way to efficiently, effectively and professionally service their needs. The place to start is by first treating every customer as an individual.

The Individual Customer
Here's a little exercise you can try. How would you treat the following two customers if you were the parts counterperson?

(1) A DIY customer comes to the counter and wants to purchase a water pump. By some of the questions he asks, you sense that he's not experienced in the repair or certain if it's even necessary.

(2) An installer (or an independent service center owner) calls the parts department for a replacement water pump and confidently relays the information to you.

How do you individualize the sales?

For the DIY customer, you may want to first ask how he determined that the pump was definitely bad - leaking, making noise, etc. Additionally, you may want to ask if he is aware of the proper procedure for removing and reinstalling the pump on that particular vehicle. Some are quite complicated and difficult, even for the most accomplished DIYers. This can also be an opportunity to recommend your service department - if your business has one - thus increasing the value of the sale. If the customer feels confident and not at all cautious or timid about performing the repair, then you would also want to mention related items he may have overlooked like coolant, belts, hoses, clamps, gaskets or any other item that may appear requisite to the repair.

As for the installer, replacing water pumps is a routine repair. He or one of his technicians diagnosed the problem and is unquestionably certain he knows exactly what is needed. Being friendly and responsive is one thing, but treating him as you would an unconfident DIY customer would annoy and maybe even anger him. With this customer, promptly providing the correct part or parts is sufficient.

The point of being empathetic is to key in on the customer as an individual and service his or her needs accordingly.

Empathy vs. Sympathy
While linking your service response to the customer's emotions helps you to give better customer service when things go wrong, be cautious about allowing yourself to be drawn into the potentially highly charged emotional state of the customer. A mistake made by employees is to treat customer problems with sympathy rather than empathy. There is an important and distinct difference between the two. Sympathy means participating and sharing in the other person's emotions. Empathy means acknowledging and recognizing the other person's emotional state. A sympathetic response to a customer problem would be, "I'm as upset and angry as you are about receiving the wrong part." An empathetic response would be, "I can see how receiving the wrong part would make you upset and angry. "By failing to make the distinction between sympathy and empathy, you'll either wind up in a head-to-head battle with the customer or find yourself energy drained by riding the customer's emotional ups and downs. When things go wrong, you have to separate the problem from the person and focus your energies on finding a solution to the problem.

Good for you if you are already lending an empathetic ear to your customers. If you are just realizing the significance of doing so here are some guidelines:

o Treat all customers as individuals; they are all unique. There are no two customers who act or react the same way.

o Treat customer needs with the same uniqueness as you do the customers themselves.

o Be receptive to the customer's emotional state. Are they cautious and uncertain or are they coolly confident? Tailor your service response accordingly.

o When a problem occurs, don't confuse sympathy with empathy. Don't take on or share the customer's emotions. Instead, recognize the customer's emotional state and work toward a solution to the problem.

o Maintain the human touch. Automation and conducting business electronically are tools that increase productivity. Some customers prefer this and are perfectly happy never having to speak to anyone when conducting transactions. However, when they must speak to someone - whether to resolve a problem or out of some other necessity - they do expect to deal with employees that care about them and their needs.

One last important point. Empathetic attitude toward customers and their needs must be company-wide. Make no mistake about it, a business as a whole that does not sincerely convey an empathetic attitude toward customers will yield departments and employees that display similar demeanor. The tone for customer service cascades from the top down. Not impossible, but rare, is the existence of an attitude toward customers by employees which is contrary to corporate culture. The eventuality is employees that are forced out or leave on their own, not to mention low customer loyalty.

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