How to Inspire Empathy in Your Customer Success Team

Share the struggle with your customers, ask how you can help and don’t pretend everything is fine.
Arit Nsemo
Arit Nsemo
Expert Contributor
March 18, 2020
Updated: August 13, 2020
Arit Nsemo
Arit Nsemo
Expert Contributor
March 18, 2020
Updated: August 13, 2020

Things are uncertain right now. People are scared. The fear ranges from worry about physical health and safety, to concern about personal finances, to anxiety about what’s to come in the world overall. Working in customer success puts you on the front lines of your customer’s feelings. Make no mistake, they are making more emotional decisions right now than they even realize. It’s your team’s job to be empathetic. I don’t mean for them to merely say things like “I completely understand” or “Yeah, times are tough” and then carry on with regularly scheduled programming. I mean for them to feel what their customers are feeling.

Some industries are hit hard by even the slightest shift in the economy. Small businesses weren’t expecting to have to close their doors to customers (and revenue) for a couple weeks to a month. Conference organizers didn’t think that the events they’ve been planning for a year would be canceled en masse. The auto industry didn’t expect oil prices to go crazy. Hiring managers and people teams didn’t expect their hiring plans to be derailed with virtual-only interviews, and to have new hires start out as remote employees. But that is what’s happening now. Regardless of your industry, we’re in a new landscape—even if it’s a temporary one. We’ve got to pivot like Ross and dive into empathy hard. Here are three ways to inspire empathy in your team without sacrificing authenticity.

1. Share the struggle

Yes, you’re there to ensure your customer’s success, but you’re also there to share in their struggle. When you’re meeting with customers during this time, ask them what their newest, biggest priority is. It’s likely changed since your last conversation. Before they answer, give them an example of yours. It’s like when someone asks you to share your weaknesses and they go first to give you a template and to make you feel comfortable. Are you currently having to work from home too? Have your personal goals changed? Keep it brief — it’s meant as an opener, not a chance for you to vent. Then let them speak if they’re willing. Repeat back what they say to you. Validate it. Literally imagine yourself sitting at their desk, in their shoes, feeling what they’re feeling.

2. Ask how you can help

You’re their partner. Remember, there was a reason they started working with you and using your product or service, and it was to solve a specific problem in their business. If they’re still trying to solve that same problem under changed circumstances, offer them workarounds. Be the expert here. Can they not use your tool in the way you originally planned? Create a new, shared success plan with them. Use their updated priorities as a guide and present them with new goals. Maybe the old ones don’t apply anymore. Go above and beyond. Be ready with additional resources — these don’t always have to come from you or your company. They can come in the form of podcasts, blogs or even a recommendation for a really good TV show. If your customers are struggling and can’t move forward in the partnership, remember that they are deep in their feelings right now and being overly pushy is the wrong move. Advise. Consult. Provide value. Ask, “What can I do now that might make your life easier in a month?”

3. Don’t pretend everything is fine. But keep things on track.

If you're getting on the phone and chatting about the weather and jamming the same message down your customers' throats right now, you're tone deaf. Even if your customer is a video-conferencing platform and their business is booming, things are different for them. Acknowledge it. Be prepared to hear tough things. But also be prepared to recommend a next step. You want you customer to come out on the other side of this successful and to have not lost momentum in the partnership. It's OK to encourage them to still move, to still take action, to still do things that align with their updated priorities—they know what those are. Movement is life, and staying stagnant now won't benefit them in the long run. Recommendations need to make sense, align with goals, and ideally be data-driven.

Toughen up and soften

Empathy is beautiful because it requires both vulnerability and strength. You kind of have to toughen up and soften at the same time. But we are all humans. Your customer has goals of their own, personal and professional. Your customer has hurdles of their own. They are dealing with this situation too. Their plans have changed too. Be ready to change the message, listen, validate, and adjust the plan. Share in the struggle — they will remember you for it.

In the immortal words of Fred Rogers: “I need thinking time when someone asks me a searching question. I wonder why it seems to be so uncomfortable for many people to wait through the silence. People of all ages have deep feelings, and if we have the patience to wait through the silence, it's often astounding what people will tell us.”

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