Trying to Get Customer Service Representatives to Convey Empathy? Here’s How.

One of the most frequent training requests we receive in my practice is training to help contact center agents be more compassionate, show concern and express empathy. Many times I’ve been asked, “Can you even train people to be empathetic and compassionate?” My answer is yes you can. But you’ll have to get radical with it.

A Radical Exercise in Empathy

I read about a radical exercise in empathy called “Xtreme Aging” where employees get to feel what it’s like to experience aging. The purpose of the exercise is to shed light on the fact that older adults in America are isolated and misunderstood and to change that. Participants in this training were given 3D glasses to simulate cataracts. Cotton balls were placed in their nose and ears to compromise their sense of hearing and sense of smell. They wore latex gloves to make it harder to feel individual objects. Small print documents were given to the participants to demonstrate how hard it can be to read mail or menus.

In all of this getup, participants were instructed to carry out simple tasks. This exercise has a profound and lasting impact on everyone who experiences it. People get to feel what it’s like to be elderly. You bet paradigms are shifted. People emerge with more compassion, concern, and empathy. This is how you get employees to feel and express empathy.

How I Helped My Employees Develop Empathy for Customers

When I worked in Consumer Affairs at Thrifty Rent-Car System, we had a big challenge with my staff understanding the stress Franchisees experienced on a day-to-day basis. The Franchisee was our primary customer, and good relations was critical for us. Using a radical experiential exercise, I helped my employees truly identify with our franchisees.

I had each of my employees fly out to a Thrifty Rental Car location in their region to work with a Franchisee for a week. My employees had to put on a uniform and show up for work every day at a rental car location. They experienced long lines, irritable customers, ringing phones and problems galore. My employees got to see what it was like to have to drop everything at the counter and wash a car to keep the lines moving. They saw what it was like to want to return a call to corporate, but not be able to because of the fires they had to put out immediately. They experienced the stress, busyness, and the unpredictable environment of working in the field.

Every one of my employees emerged from this experience changed. Relations with franchisees improved immediately. There was a greater patience, more empathy, and better communication. Plus they loved getting out of the corporate office for a “business trip.”

You teach people to care by letting them experience what your customers experience.

When you’re designing training with the objective of helping your employees care more and express concern, incorporate an experiential exercise that puts your people in your customer’s shoes. Your employees will more effectively identify with your clients, and you’ll observe more empathy and concern in interactions.


Myra talks about how one of her clients taught employees to convey empathy. Click play to learn how they did it.

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