“I don’t really care if you’re sorry…”

That’s what a young lady said to me once as I was trying to assist her with a pressing issue.  She was stressed, frustrated, annoyed, and any other word that you can think of that means she was not happy.  I thought that telling her how sorry I was would buy me some points so that she would write a nice response on my after-call survey.  No such luck.

“Not to be rude but, I don’t really care if you’re sorry because sorry is not getting me my refund!”  In that instant, as I was talking myself out of using every curse word I had ever learned or overheard, I realized something very important.  She was right.  No matter how much I tried to make her believe that I was sorry, it wasn’t going to resolve her problem.  And, at the very core of honesty, I really wasn’t sorry at all.  That customer caught me in a big lie.

Some of you might be thinking, “how could you not be sorry for her situation?”  Easy.  The truth is, when she hung up the phone, I had absolutely no care in the world for anything having to do with her.  Our “service relationship” was over.  Resolving her issue no longer mattered to me.  That night, I went home, hugged my wife and kids and watched a little TV.  The next day, I couldn’t even remember her name.

So, what’s my point?  Empathy…not sympathy.  That’s how we can maintain our sanity, integrity, and honesty in less-than-desirable situations.  Empathy says “I will put myself into your situation and understand why you’re feeling the way you’re feeling.”  Sympathy, on the other hand, places you on the outside of the situation, almost as if you’re shaking your head at the customer’s misfortune.  It’s almost as if you’re saying “Sorry you’re going through this.  Glad it’s not me!”

Empathy also allows you to detach more easily after the issue is resolved (or escalated).  You invest less emotionally if you empathize rather than try to make yourself feel compelled to show how sorry you are.  In reality, most of what you will be dealing with in a scenario is not your fault.  You’re just the person who has to work to clean up the mess and make everything better.  So, there’s no reason to be sorry.

Naturally, in the rare case that you did something like drop the ball on follow-through for an issue, you can express some sorrow for that.  If this is the case, I suggest apologizing one time and one time only. Then move on and resolve your customer’s problem.  No matter how many times your customer may want to mention your mistake, never apologize more than once.  This helps in keeping control of the conversation (a topic to be covered in a later post).

So how do you do it?  How do you empathize?  Well, for those of you that drive a car, think about how sometimes you’re a pedestrian and sometimes you’re a driver.  When you’re a driver, you wish the pedestrian would hurry up so you can make the light.  When you’re a pedestrian, you wish the car would slow down so you can cross the street.  Imagine what would happen if the pedestrian thought like a driver. Instead of taking their time crossing the street, they would move quicker or allow the car to pass before making their move.  That’s a form of empathy-acting in a way that you would expect to act if you were in the reverse situation.

So in our customer service scenario, think about how you would feel if you experienced what the customer has experienced.  What would you want a customer service professional to say or do to resolve your issue?  Would you want them to say,”I’m so sorry that you experienced that…” or “I understand how you feel.  I would feel the same way…”?  Personally, I’d prefer the 2nd one, and not just because it’s the point of my whole article, but because it let’s me know that perhaps there’s a shred of understanding on the other end of the line rather than someone who is just trying to rush me off the phone.

What’s your opinion?

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Looking for comments/suggestions/questions around customer service and support. What would you like to read about?

11 thoughts on ““I don’t really care if you’re sorry…”

  1. Hey Jeffrey! I agree with your thoughts exactly-I just never knew how to break it down like you did-or how to express it. Yes, I think we all say “I’m sorry” too often. It’s way to easy to say! But when you get deeper into the situation or relationship, you can feel that “empathy” that you mentioned. I’ve always felt that we can’t truly understand what someone is going through until we put ourselves in their shoes- how would YOU feel? If more of us would do that, i think there would be more empathy, compassion, and true sympathy. Good job, Jeffrey!

  2. I like it when a customer service agents responds like you suggested. When I hear, “I’m sorry you experienced…” I then get a feeling that the person on the other end actually understands my dilema. Having someone be empathetic is more than half the battle. Thanks for you insight.

    1. Hey craft…it’s over a year later and I’m just realizing that I never properly thanked you for your comment. I regret that so much time has passed but I really do value your input. Thank you!

  3. Empathy not Sympathy… Brilliantly thought out! I disagree on one point… I think when you empathize with a person you commit more feelings and meet a person at their level… It’s interesting that empathazing makes it easier to detach later, I agree… No one wants to feel like they’re being pittied in a service relationship, which is what you so eloquently describe… Thanks for this! M*

    1. Sorry Michelle, no disagreeing allowed, lol! I guess it depends on how you look at it or to what level you allow yourself to become invested in a situation.

  4. Jeff,
    I would agree with you. People just NEED to FEEL that you care and you are trying everything you can to assist them.

    It does not pay to take any “work” home of this caliber, not necessary or worth the stress.

    Great post. Thanks for sharing.

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