Customer Empathy Insight Research and Solutions

What is 'Customer Empathy'?
   - Personal Customer Service or the human element!

Have you noticed that over the last decade or so there's been
a quiet revolution going on in Customer Service? 
As a customer you can now feel it in many service interactions.

It used to be a rarity, but now it's increasingly common to actually be made to
 feel good
 as a customer by the caring, genuine sincerity of even busy call centre staff!

In 1992 I coined the term 'Customer Empathy' to describe it...

How far are you and your organisation on board with it? 

Whatever you call it, we all instinctively love 'Customer Empathy'. Even though it's difficult to describe, we know it and appreciate this kind of personal service when we get it, not least of all because it's still relatively unusual (but, thankfully, on the increase).

Customer Empathy creates that warm glow you get when you return to a business and they remember your name and are pleased you've come back, or when they are obviously interested in you as a person, or are genuinely concerned about fixing some inconvenience they've caused, sincerely caring that you've been put out.

Customer Empathy creates that wonderful sense of emotional satisfaction we feel when we're being valued and treated as a person - as a human being!

Assuming you're running a business, when you and your people give us, your customers, some of your personality and put some of your heart into it (as well as your willingness to do the job required) it feels so good to be recognised as a real person that we're likely to want to come back and do more business with you and even to tell all our friends all about it!

This is because by bringing the human element into our interaction you've created an emotional bond between with us that will make us loyal to you and to WANT to come back to you, even if there's some better 'deal' elsewhere...

When you're genuinely 'nice' to us (in an appropriate way), when you're friendly and treat us with respect, we feel like you actually care about us as a person (because you DO - you can't fake it!) 

 When you talk to us like a human being, almost like a friend:

  • we feel valued, important, welcome
  • we feel like we matter to you
  • and not just to the person serving us, but to the whole company... 

... and we can't help wanting to come back again!

Carphone Warehouse begins drive to be nice

If you work for Carphone Warehouse, it is going to pay to be nice to your customers. Literally. The company's sales staff are to be paid according to how polite and helpful they are, in an attempt to boost sales in what is a declining handset market

The Times - Saturday 6th June 2009

Why 'Customer Empathy'? Well, not only does it seem to naturally evoke the general idea of personal service, but it's also true that it does require a certain level of empathy to actually achieve it, i.e. the ability and sensitivity to appreciate where your customers are individually coming from and so to naturally adapt to their own emotional as well as physical needs.

Whereas Customer Satisfaction drivers tend to make sure we DO the right thing for our Customers, Customer Empathy addresses the human side of our relationship: it speaks to the heart, not just the mind. So, when you 'smile' because you want to, not because you've been told to, it's from the heart - because it's genuine, it hits the mark!

" [We now ask our customers:]

  • Did we demonstrate interest in you as an individual? 
  • In what way, specifically, did we demonstrate that? 
  • Did it FEEL Like a good experience?" 

" The word 'feel' used to be irrelevant, but what we now KNOW, absolutely, is that if you can just press those buttons it's that which actually shifts the consumer's advocacy of you as an organisation.

" The Customer just simply EXPECTS that they will get the documents on time, that the phone will be answered in a minute, etc. What they don't necessarily expect, and what is differentiating us where we are getting this right, is where we are creating some emotional 'cookies' "

[We have] seven principles of Care, including: "They [Aviva] always do what they say they’ll do" and "They are interested in me as a person."

Darren Cornish, Director of Customer Experience at Avia (previously Norwich Union)

Encouraging Customer Empathy

Interestingly, Customer Empathy does not lend itself to being 'trained', it's more like being released to freely do what we already know how to do - to relate to people as people; it's just that up to now staff have been asked to do something else instead! Here are three ways of encouraging more Customer Empathy in your people:

  1. By Example - people are inhibited and cautious if you're asking them to do something that you yourself aren't doing and believing in 
  2. By Permission - rather than try to control them with rules, people will naturally know how to be friendly and 'empathetic' if you simply tell them that that's what you want, and make it clear you're giving them permission to serve their customers in the way that feels right to them (see the Free-Range Report for a great example)
  3. By Recruiting - most of your existing people will 'naturally' know how to be friendly/ empathetic when given permission; but you really only want to hire new people who are already clearly naturals at it! FirstDirect (UK's first Telephone Banking company and renown for its great Customer Service) always said that they recruit people with personality, since banking skills could always be taught. Zappos have two separate interviews: one for the job and one for the cultural fit to their very demanding service values, etc.

So, Customer Empathy often becomes more about individuals being allowed to be themselves and to use their own abilities and personalities, rather than trying to force-fit them into being carbon-copies of some ideal corporate 'branded' personality with 'QA Approved' behaviours.

Keith Mansfield, Head of Individual Customer Services at Friends Provident, enjoys telling the story of the turnaround of one of his advisors who was on a final disciplinary written warning:

  • She had been occasionally using too familiar terms like "Dear" or customers' first names, against company policy (even though she had explained that she only did this when she could sense that it was appropriate for a customer).
  • So, when Friends Provident began to actually encourage that kind of discretion, this sensitive lady who had been about to be fired, immediately blossomed to become an icon of great service, even becoming the winner of their "Customer Service Advisor Award" based on customer and colleague feedback.
  • Again, see the Free Range Chickens report for more detail of this great example of this in action.

Paradigm Shift

Does all this sound too good or to simplistic to be true?

You might be surprised at how easy and economical this 'Customer Empathy' can be to achieve!

But, to be fair, it DOES require a simple, but profound paradigm shift of approach, away from simply:

  • WHAT you DO in trying to get everything right (essential, but doesn't buy loyalty anymore)
  • and towards HOW you make customers FEEL - bringing the human side into the transaction.

This shift is not just for your Customers but also within your business too, starting with the management/ leadership - to do this properly, it actually does require a cultural shift, that is, a shift in the real core values you all hold (not just the ones in the annual report or on the wall!)

Are you on board with the shift?

When I originated the concept of 'Customer Empathy' there were only a few pioneering business people (mainly Blue Chip business leaders) who recognised the common sense that I was pointing out and who didn't think I was nuts! 

But now things have changed and so many seem to be getting on board fast with this shift towards a feel-good Customer Experience.

So yes, many call centre interactions are now actually anything from pretty good to outstanding. Even utility companies, like BT (an old client of mine), can now come up with delightful staff that really show they understand and care about you (despite their organisation sometimes failing them and the customers badly).

Example of Outstanding Service, from a call centre

Recently, I had cause to call a large business and I ended up in one of those dreaded Call Centres. Now, when my 'Customer Service Agent', Raj, finally said, "Thank you for calling," I simply couldn't let it rest there, particularly because Indian call centres tend to get bad press!

I simply had to thank HIM for his outstanding service to me: "Are you speaking to me from India?" I asked. "Oh yes, sir, from Delhi," he proudly announced.

"Well, I just have to both thank you and congratulate you on the fabulous service you've given me. I feel reassured, cared for and valued, and I just wanted to let you know how much I appreciate the personal, attentive care you've given me."

He was surprised and deeply touched that I had acknowledged him in this way. It was clear that he already knew he'd done a great job with me and was proud of it, but he wasn't used to people telling him so: "Thank you sir, it's very kind of you to let me know, I really appreciate it!"

It felt good to let him know; it wasn't so much a transaction, but more a genuine human exchange. It made a deep impression on me.

So, what was the call about? A huge purchase? A massive catastrophe?

No! A simple run-of-the-mill enquiry about a telephone fault - nothing special!

Am I big client?

No! Just a regular private account holder (not with BT in this case)

Did this call have an impact on me?

You betcha! I felt elated and impressed, and it made a lasting impression on me. I have thought about it often, and shared it with many people. 

This one call has had more impact and cemented my relationship and loyalty with this telephone supplier more profoundly than any amount of special deals, perfect telephony service, etc. could ever achieve.

And how much does it cost?

How much did it cost Raj to achieve that?


The transaction took no longer than usual, in fact, it was probably quicker as a result of the excellent communication and reassurance experienced. His genuine, helpful and caring manner was simply to do a normal job in a better way, a way that included ME as a customer.

Still Early Days!

Now, although there's no doubt that Customer Empathy is on the increase (and probably is in your own business too, or you wouldn't be reading this!), there's still so far to go in making customers feel good emotionally; it still represents an enormous competitive advantage opportunity to any and every business.

On the 1-10  Scale of objective Empathy measurement, even the very best companies are still only achieving around an Empathy Rating average of 6.5 - 7.5, tops!

And even though this is a GREAT accomplishment, because it means that they are actually beginning to consistently making customers Feel Good, there's still PLENTY of headroom between 7.0 and 10 for further improvement.

This means that when Customer Empathy is properly embraced, it's perhaps the most potent way to distinguish and differentiate yourself.

" What became immensely apparent was that, yes, your "entry ticket to the park" was having your basics right..., but, if we were truly going to differentiate ourselves, then what our customers were saying (and what their behaviours were demonstrating in terms of whether they chose us, whether they stayed with us, whether they bought more from us) was actually what made the difference wasn't really the functional stuff, that was the given, what made the difference was whether they felt they'd had a good emotional experience with us as an organisation. "

Darren Cornish, Director of Customer Experience at Norwich Union

Can I help?

As the original developer of the 'Customer Empathy Audit' and the 'absolute 1-10 Empathy Rating', with 20 years' experience, I'm in a unique position to help you take advantage of this opportunity for your business.

So, please do just contact me to explore further; I look forward to hearing from you - it should be very interesting!




Marketing News article - a good overview
Customer Empathy?
A natural ability
Empathy Benefits
Free-Range Report
A taster?
Empathy Consulting
About John

What's the quickest, most powerful and cost-effective way to WIN 
Customer Loyalty ?
...capturing the hearts , as well as the minds, of your customers!






"As a result of the economic slowdown, business leaders are focusing on the central role of customer service to simultaneously lower costs and build customer loyalty. The loss of a profitable customer, or a potentially profitable customer, is expensive and preventable."
29th April 2009 Michael Maoz, VP Gartner Inc. PRNewswire









'Customer Fatigue' is getting worse - we customers just won't stand for it when it's wrong, and just because it's 'right' doesn't mean we're going to stay either!



  must know by now that Customer Satisfaction is
NO LONGER enough
... Customers have to love doing business with you!





"The truth of a thing is in the feel of it, not the think of it"
Stanley Kubrick