Empathy: A Customer Success Must-Have Skill

I can’t count on two hands anymore the number of times I have been asked by peers, executives, and even my own teams what are top traits and skills most needed to be successful in Customer Success.  One that has always been high on the “must have” skills list is empathy.

If you look up empathy in any given dictionary you’ll come across something along the lines of “understanding and sharing another person’s experiences and emotions.”(1).  And, taking it a little further to the context I feel applies to Customer Success, it is the ability to understand another’s perspective.

As mentioned in an earlier piece about the birth of Customer Success, this role was created out of necessity in addressing a growing risk to customer dissatisfaction because of the sophistication and complexity that now resides in SaaS solution delivery models.  Customers want a great experience when using a software, and they simultaneously expect the software delivers on the commitment to extend real value for their business.

And, no matter how much good intention and heart is placed in delivering a product with high experience and value marks, there still exists risk for points of discontentment, confusion, or frustration from the customer.  This can sometimes be caused by a lackluster experience crafted by the software company.  Another reason for negative sentiment and aggravation for customers can be due to a lack of functionality and feature delivery.  And, there is always the disappointment and business impact when new bugs are introduced in the latest software update roll-out.  The point is, there is a multitude of reasons a customer can become discontent and the risk of them fleeing to a new solution can arise.

This is where empathy plays a crucial element to how a company can turn around a sinking situation.  As Dr. Reiss, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School states so well, empathy is the demonstration of having our needs responded to (2).  And, contrary to some belief out in this world, empathy is not something some are gifted with, and others are not.  Like many things, humans are grounded from the neurobiology of emotions – we are all neuro constructively capable of honing and learning empathy.

In extension to how empathy serves well in Customer Success for the ability to respond to the needs of customer expectations, this skill has also proven well in how my Customer Success teams have been able to effectively work internally, cross-functionally.  A Customer Success’ responsibility often requires a need to constantly disseminate constructive information between parties that sometimes never collaborate.  Being a middle conduit requires the use of empathy in order to understand perspectives to come towards a happy median for all parties.  Easier said than done, sometimes!  In any event, empathy serves as a useful skill in multitude circumstances in the Customer Success domain.

Now, I do not want to pass myself off as the empathy expert here!  I do, however, want to reiterate that my most successful teams are individuals that consistently, and to a high degree, exercise empathy with customers, and amongst peers and colleagues.  I felt it fruitful to share Dr. Reiss’ TedTalk, Learning Empathy as a Skill, because within in you’ll find a useful framework she shares that you can leverage, should you wish to refresh yourself on traits of empathy.  I have outlined the framework below, but you’ll find more context and meaning behind each element in the TedTalk.

The Empathy Framework

  • E = Eye Contact.  (It goes without saying making eye contact is the first indication of the connection with others.)
  • M = Muscles of Facial Human Emotion.  (Dr. Reiss shares how facial expressions demonstrate an understanding to a situation without putting words to it.)
  • P = Posture.  (A great example is shared in the TedTalk about how posture conveys compassion.)
  • A = Affect.  (Affect is a scientific term for expressed emotion thru labeling, such as “mad”, “sad”, “angry”, etc. Dr. Reiss advice is putting a label to how a person is feeling to help you better understand how to help.)
  • T = Tone of Voice.  (Dr. Reis shares emotional activation is tied to the changes in tone of our voice.   Therefore, by honing in on interpreting tone you’re better equipped to engage appropriately.)
  • H = Hearing the Whole Person.  (This is from a context of not judging and keeping curiosity open as you maneuver thru understanding another perspective.)
  • Y = Your Response.  (Having a response is the general view if you truly want to express empathy.)
  1. Empathy. (n.d.). Retrieved March 9, 2017, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/empathy
  2. (2013, December 12). Retrieved March 9, 2017, from https://youtu.be/baHrcC8B4WM

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