Thursday, November 21, 2013

Empathy over the phone

I spend time every day talking on the phone. Building empathy over the phone, like building empathy in person, takes effort. I can tell you that it's completely worth it.*


The other day I had a problem;  I wasn't getting money I was owed on my credit card. I called the helpdesk, feeling a little mad about this, and a lady's voice says, "Hello, welcome to Credit Card ABC Rewards technical services desk, how can I help you?"

"Hi there, how are you today?"

Even though I'm mad I have to start every conversation with a stranger this way. If I do, I instantly pull them out of their pre-recorded voice mode and into normal-person voice. Most people respond instantly with something real.

She says, "I'm doing...pretty well, actually." I say, "That's great" and already start to feel a little calmer.

She goes back into working mode with, "So, how can I help you?" So I describe the problem in detail.

She replies with a friendly, "Okay let me look up your account. Hmm, well it looks like it's working fine."

So basically she's saying that I'm wrong, or I made a mistake. I could react with anger as I've done before, but instead I say, "Well, actually, it's not, because of reason A, historical problem B and..." I'm feeling calm, because I'm thinking of her as a person. I'm actively trying to not be angry at the system not working the way it should, or at her for telling me that I'm wrong.

"Hmm....Let me check something;. I think I've seen this issue before, just one moment."

She's not fighting me or telling me I don't know what I'm talking about, perhaps because of her training, but also perhaps because I started out treating her like a person and not a machine to be yelled at. I believe that she's trying to help me because she sees me as a person too.

She said, "Okay, I see the problem, yes that's right. Okay you should be all set."

Great! We're all done and there was no anger, no stress. Just a problem getting solved. I admit this was easier than most helpdesk issues but it still serves my point.


We kept going. I asked her to explain what had happened, and to walk me through what she was doing, which she did. We stayed on the phone, me asking questions about how the software/website worked, her answering them and making sure I understood. She said, "I'm going to date myself by saying this, but this system is slower than a typewriter" and we both laughed.

At this point I didn't WANT to hang up the phone. I was happy to talk to this person, both because she made it a pleasant experience AND because I made efforts to be pleasant. When we said good-bye and wished each other 'have a good day' it was meaningful.

In one phone conversation we went from 'angry' to 'neutral' to 'positive'. What can you do in your next phone call with a stranger? Have you tried this?


*Note that there's a great group of people proving every day that telephone empathy works and makes a difference, through The Parents Circle. Israelis and Palestinians finding ways to talk, listen and really communicate to each other.


SL said...

I have absolutely no empathy for the unwanted telephone calls I receive.

Janet said...

Hi SL,

I hear that; I mean, you are saying the calls are 'unwanted' so you would find it difficult to have empathy for the callers. The point I'm making here is that even though you would find it difficult, would you be willing to treat the caller as a person? Do you say, "No, thank you." before you hang up? Or do you yell and get mad at them for calling you?