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Empathy vs. Sympathy – Customer Service Week Diatribe

As part of the “celebrations” of this week, Customer Service Week, I am attending various Customer Service related webinars. Whenever I attend similar functions, I get extremely agitated by the constant pounding of the use of empathy; and the term is used incorrectly.

I have been in Customer Service for the last 22 years. In my various positions, I have been provided formal, informal, on-the-job and pick-it-up-as-you-go training in Customer Service techniques. Hammering home many of these lessons is the unspoken umbrella, that Customer Service Training does not teach you how to SERVE your customers, but instead provides instructions on how to MANAGE customers.

As Customer Service Representatives (Agents, etc), it is our job to “handle” the customer until we, or someone in our company, are able to “assist” the customer. All we really want to do is to deal with the personal face of the customer, while our company handles the request of the customer – whether that is repair, sales, service, or any other business to consumer transaction.

Therefore, we are taught all these new-age “Customer Service” techniques to handle our customers’ ire, impatience, dissatisfaction and other uncomfortable emotions directed squarely at US.

When it comes to Empathy, we are taught that our customers want us to be empathetic, to feel for them. Some Customer Service training, going one bit further, even teach us that we should not show sympathy, as that is a condescending emotion, and we want to show compassion, not pity. I would like to respectfully DISAGREE.

Empathy is an emotion whereby we feel what another party feels. Sympathy is an emotion whereby we imagine how the other party feels. Let me point out a real-time example to illustrate the difference, and why Customer Service Representatives should NOT show empathy, but should, instead, show sympathy.

Imagine your best friend knocks on your door and tells you that their father passed away.

Scenario one: Both your parents are alive and kicking. In fact, you just had a very enjoyable Sunday dinner with them and you plan on seeing them again soon. You are shocked by your friend’s news and you imagine how you’d feel if it had happened to you. Feeling that kind of sympathy, your arms immediately go around your friend’s shoulders, and as you guide them to a seat, you immediately want to ease their pain. You are completely there, in the moment, for your friend, who really needs your shoulder to cry on right now.

Scenario two: Your own father passed away not quite a year ago. As your friend is standing in the doorway, sobbing into their shirt-sleeve, you think back to your shock and grief when your father passed. You sink deeper into your thoughts as it is brought back into your foremost thoughts, that you will never share a joke with your dad again. You’ll never crack open a beer after tinkering in the garage. You distractedly guide your friend to a seat, and nod at whatever they are saying, throwing in some agreeable sounds, but your feelings of empathy are completely distracting you from your friend’s pain and though you are physically there for them, you are not emotionally all there for them.

If I had a wish, and could be part of the design team of Customer Service Curriculum, I would change the vocabulary from Empathy to Sympathy. My critics would harp on the nit-pickiness of this distinction, but it’s such a fine distinction between being all about your customer, and thinking about how you feel when that same situation happened to you not two days ago, and how you are fuming. You’re no longer 100 percent committed to solving your customer’s problem anymore.

Now, I am not saying that a person can’t squelch the reaction and still be a good and comforting customer service rep. I’m just saying that the more shared experiences that the service representative has with the customer, the rep will tend to veer towards empathy, and not sympathy.

It is much easier to say, “I can imagine your pain,” than it is to say, “I know your pain.”

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Yun-Mei Lin

Wow, Tariq – it sounds like you’ve got the exact concept I’m trying to convey, just with the words mixed up, and that might just be a matter of symatics. I’m trying to convey a clarity in usage and technique, not necessarily a dictionary clarity.

Traditionally, an empath is someone who feels exactly what another party feels.
Sympathy means you have compassion and understanding for someone else’s feelings, not using your own feelings.

My personal point is that, despite all our teachings to the contrary, I would rather speak to someone who will understand how I’m feeling and treat me with the corresponding emotions of care I need, than for them to start spouting off on how they felt when it happened to them. As a customer, I don’t care how you felt when you were unpaid two pay periods ago, and though you empathize with me, because you’ve been there, I want you to be sympathetic to the fact that I am unpaid NOW, today, and don’t know what I’m going to do about my bills.

As a customer service representative, I know better than to say, “I know how that feels, Mrs. Smith – that same thing happened to me.” We get a much better response when we say, “I can imagine what a state you’re in, Mrs. Smith – let’s figure out how to resolve your situation.”

I will definitely check out your reference – and see if there’s some clarity in it to define my position better, and I thank you for your response.