No one would disagree that technology has improved customer service exponentially. Technology continues to enable contact centers to operate more efficiently, to be responsive in real time, and to create customer experiences that exceed their expectations, especially across an expanding array of digital channels.
But there’s the human side of contact centers, too. Technology would be pretty hollow without the “people” side of the equation. In fact, the most effective contact centers focus on both: continuing to enhance and adopt new technology and developing “soft skills”—the people skills that allow contact center agents to effectively interact with customers, managers, and other employees. Things like communication skills, adaptability, and integrity fall into this category.
The ‘softer side’ of contact centers
Individuals generally have different soft skills, and most of the time, those hiring contact center agents don’t have good ways of evaluating those skills in applicants. While there are definitely ways to improve the interviewing process, Call Centre Helper in the UK says that contact center managers should make developing workers’ soft skills a priority—through self-study, live training or, ideally, a combination of both. The place to start: a list of several of the most important soft skills:
- Communication skills
- The ability to gain customers’ trust
- Product knowledge
- Problem solving
Some organizations are surprised to learn that improvement in soft skills can be tied to contact center objectives, KPIs, and even organizational business objectives. Although there are human reasons for contact centers to engage customers on an emotional level, there are solid business reasons for doing it, too. After all, emotions are powerful drivers of customer behavior, including spending, loyalty and of course, leaving dissatisfied. For example, emotionally connected customers are 25-100% more valuable than “highly satisfied” customers, according to a study from HBR. And customers who feel positive about brands will spend up to 200% more than those who are not engaged.
Is empathy king of the soft skills?
But one “people skill” often trumps the rest among brands that want to deepen their customer connections and relationships: empathy. True brand empathy, according to the Content Marketing Institute, is about creating a shared journey between a brand and its audience. It involves a deeper connection to, and understanding of, that audience on an emotional level, as well as on rational and transactional ones.
Can brands deliver? a Forbes article asks about the current focus on empathy. Although some see empathy as the “flavor of the day,” dismiss it at your own peril: Increasing numbers of consumers believe that it’s more critical than ever for brands to demonstrate empathetic qualities and take action to maintain customer loyalty and support. Even in the healthcare industry, where one would expect to find it in the water supply, empathy has become so important, it’s being studied and taught to doctors and other professionals. Across the board, we’re researching empathy, hiring for empathy, and monitoring for it on the job.
Empathy as a core cultural value
So how does empathy become a demonstrable attribute of employees—or even a “best practice?” For some companies, empathy supersedes brand strategy and is embedded in the culture. A perfect example is NICE inContact customer Bayada Home Health Care—an organization that has always viewed empathy as a core element of the care it provides. Founded in 1975, Bayada is a mission-based company that provides nursing and assistive care to patients—seniors, adults, and children—at home rather than in a nursing facility or hospital.
“We have about 25,000 nurses across the country in 22 different states where we actually provide service,” says Martin Jones, director of contact center operations for Bayada. “We care for our clients in their homes, when that’s their preference or it’s more comfortable for them or just a better place for them to recover and be surrounded by their family rather than being in a facility. Our nurses are really the backbone of our organization,” he continues. “They are the ones who, as they take care of each one of our clients, are always building on our values of compassion, excellence and reliability.”
Says Division Director Melissa Burnside, who oversees Bayada’s contact center and other areas: “For our frontline workers—nurses and aids and therapists and others—this is a calling. They do it with heart and soul.”
Empathy extends to the contact center
But, Martin emphasizes, the empathy doesn’t end with direct patient care. At a profound level, it’s what the organization is all about. The empathy that is seeded in the company culture by its clinical staff extends naturally to its contact center employees. “We go above and beyond during every interaction,” he says. “ We deal with about a thousand contacts a day. We understand that every single one of those contacts is a client or another person who is in need.”
“Our core values—compassion, excellence and reliability—translate well to our contact center team,” he says. “Every person displays those values. And in every interaction we have—with our callers, with our clients, with our providers—[those values] come through. It's really a critical part of who we are and what we do. [As a company] we focus on ensuring that every associate has that at all times, because we, too, see ourselves as taking care of clients with the values they expect, beyond direct home health care.”
The all-Important first contact
Martin explains the important role the contact center plays in setting the tone for building relationships with clients and their families. “Our call center very often is the first voice that anyone hears at Bayada—and sometimes in the entire home health care industry,” Martin explains. “So it’s important… that every call is based on empathy, understanding and reassurance that we can assist them with their needs—much like putting an arm around them and helping them through the process in a very challenging time.”
Does software have a role in empathy? (Yes)
While empathy might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about software, Martin and Melissa emphasize that having the right contact center software is in itself a way of responding to—and having empathy for—clients’ needs.
“People don't necessarily call that a home health care on their best day,” Melissa says. “So people are calling us when they're challenged. They have a loved one that they need to find care for. It’s critical for our IVR to be simple and effective. NICE inContact has allowed us to do that. It’s very easy to transact through. And [with skills-based routing,] we get that caller to the right associate the first time, every single time.”
Melissa says CXone has significantly improved the contact center's performance, which enables it to help more customers more efficiently. Average speed of answer (ASA) has decreased by 97%, and the abandon rate has decreased by 87%. “Our customers are often in situations where they need quick answers,” she says, “and we rise to the occasion to help them.”
The right CX software can set the stage for empathy
“CXone has been a game-changer for us in terms of modernization of the contact center,” says Martin. “It really is the backbone of everything that we do and allows us an incredible amount of visibility and data and reporting to be able to manage our day-to-day business better than we ever have. It’s also given us the flexibility to be very nimble to respond to the every-changing requirements of our industry. And whenever we need to make an adjustment, it's easy and simple to do.”
Melissa says that because CXone is easy and user-friendly, contact center agents can really zero in on the customer experience instead of having to concentrate on the software. “They’re putting their full attention on attending to the customer’s needs,” she says.
Martin says that CXone has not only enabled the contact center to expand in capacity and improve performance at the same time, but the platform has also provided the flexibility to expand into digital channels. “Our volume is up year-over-year 130%,” he says. “We’re planning on increasing our 60 agents to 70-80 in the next year. We’ve also seen a real drive to electronic [channels] in the last couple of years, and our email volume is growing significantly more than our phone volume. NICE inContact is a real partner for us, and CXone allows us to assist more and more people in their homes each and every day.”
Empathy: not just for health care
While brands in many sectors often look to healthcare organizations as examples of how to practice empathy effectively, all brands are finding that empathy needs to be combined with authenticity—which means defining and incorporating empathy on their own terms and in ways that are meaningful to their own customers. Writing about how empathy influences customer service, behavioral sciences and CX expert Peter Dorrington says that in this context, empathy is the ability to have meaningful interactions with customers (or employees)—to connect with their feelings, even if you are unable to resolve their problem. Even saying ‘no’ should be done compassionately and humanely—that is a form of empathy.
Before 2020, empathy was already playing a more pivotal role in customer interactions, across all industries. But Dorrington says that during the pandemic, customers have started to expect and demand increasing levels of understanding and engagement. After everything they’ve been through, they want customer-centric relationships. And while customers may be gradually returning to a calmer mindset, there is still plenty of anxiety and uncertainty to go around. That can’t be ignored, and for some customers, that requires emotional support—or at least an awareness of what they’re feeling. Customer service, especially as we all adapt to new realities, has never been more important.
If you need some thought starters in re-thinking your approach to infusing your customer interactions with empathy, the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), experts in contact center excellence, suggests 20 ways to empathize with stressed out customers.
Sometimes personal experience is the most powerful influence on one’s perspective on empathy and even on how a brand expresses it in its customer interactions. American Express CMO Elizabeth Rutledge, a breast cancer survivor, says that colleagues’ expressions of personal empathy during her illness had a deeply profound impact on her, on how she views empathy and especially, on how she views empathy relative to brand values and communications. She says a marketer’s biggest challenge today is mastering “digital empathy”—making a customer’s life easier wherever they are while “serving not selling” solutions with a human touch.
Learn how NICE inContact CXone can help your contact center interact with customers with CX that’s efficient, nimble, and responsive to their needs with digital-first omnichannel, interaction analytics and sentiment analysis solutions. Download our new eBook, The Power of Emotion in Customer Service.