Call center agents must rely on their empathy skills to effectively engage customers and build connections in real time. Often, agents are the ones to establish a customer’s first impression about the company at hand. If an agent is unable to be empathetic by accurately reading the customer’s emotion and responding appropriately, that poor first impression could result in a missed connection and missed opportunity with the customer. So what does it mean to be empathetic and what are the critical components to empathy that help two people form a connection?

Science of Empathy

Cognitive empathy is the ability to think about what another person is feeling and then, more importantly, keep that person’s feelings in mind when responding and interacting. This takes more than just words. In fact, nonverbal communication (facial expressions, gestures and vocal tones) makes up between 60-90% of how we communicate with empathy, and is one of the two main skills involved in empathetic communication.

The second skill is the ability to accurately read other people. Accurately reading other people means noticing and interpreting another person’s nonverbal behaviors. This broad definition encompasses judgments and predictions of others’ emotions, personality, status, and intentions from nonverbal cues.

People who have these empathy skills are more proficient in communicating with nonverbal behavior – often called emotion regulation. They are more aware of the impression their behavior makes on others and are able to modify their nonverbal behavior when needed to create certain impressions.

There is a popular notion that empathic communication comes naturally for some people. While it’s true that there is individual variation, the assumption that we cannot improve our ability to communicate empathically is incorrect. Through training, call center agents can significantly improve their ability to accurately interpret customers’ nonverbal behaviors. With this ability, agents can also learn to control their own nonverbal behaviors to convey empathy during a customer interaction.

Why Empathy is Important to Call Centers

Companies often call their call center agents “front-line” employees because they represent the backbone of an organization’s ability to positively engage its customers. 93% of call center agents agree that their conversations with customers directly impact customer satisfaction with an organization. So if empathic communication is so important and can be improved through real-time feedback, how can we identify the agents that will benefit most?

It turns out that asking agents directly isn’t the answer. Most people think that they are pretty adept at communication, especially nonverbal communication. We assume that the nonverbal signals we send are picked up by the person we are interacting with, and we assume that the perceptions we form of other people’s nonverbal behaviors are accurate. How could we not? We receive relatively little feedback in the real world when we miss a nonverbal signal or sound differently than we intended. Study after study shows that we are actually pretty poor when it comes to self-assessing our empathic communication skills (Blanch-Hartigan, 2009). The good news is that recent research suggests that in fact everyone can benefit from empathy communication training, even those who are relatively empathic communicators to begin with.

The best way to improve agents’ ability to communicate empathically is via real-time feedback or coaching. For example, agents can be notified in real time when their vocal energy levels are outside an acceptable range and adapt their behaviors to the customer interaction. They can also improve their empathy skills when the customer becomes more emotionally engaged – and then provide appropriate variations in their energy level. With real-time tip offs, agents can make more accurate judgments about what the customer might be thinking or feeling and make subtle changes in behavior.

So how can we better respond to customer emotional cues? How can agents recognize an opportunity to convey empathy? Today, many companies are leveraging Cogito software to monitor agents’ awareness and responsiveness to customers, particularly when it comes to Empathy. The Empathy Cue, a behavioral notification available via Cogito, activates when a customer’s vocal energy level increases over the course of a conversation. When the Empathy notification appears, agents can pause and reassess a customer’s emotional state and then quickly respond with acknowledgement and recognition.

Ultimately, providing real-time feedback can enable agents to elevate their interactions with customers, giving agents a chance to provide an empathetic response and move the conversation forward – solidifying that connection with the customer and the company.

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