Dear Customer Service Centers, Please Stop It With the Scripted Empathy

You’ve been on the phone trying to reach customer service for 10 minutes, pressing buttons and entering account numbers. Finally, a real live human being picks up the phone. You explain your problem briefly. Let’s say your cable service is out.

But instead of a quick resolution, you spend another minute listening while the customer service agent says something like this:

“Let me begin, Mrs. Lewis, by thanking you for being a customer for the last five years. We certainly appreciate your business. Now, I would like to first take a moment to say how sincerely sorry I am to hear your cable is not working. I can tell you as a cable customer myself who loves watching TV, sports, and lots of movies with my family, I certainly understand how inconvenient this must be to not have your systems working. I get frustrated, too, when this happens to me, Mrs. Lewis. So to be sure I understand, the purpose of your call is to get technical support because your cable is not working, correct?”

The response is so long and carefully formulated, you could be forgiven for thinking that you hadn’t actually reached a human being. And this attempt to script empathy is clearly on the rise, according to customers and call center workers alike.

Companies have turned to these kind of scripts in hopes of appeasing the 60% of Americans who walked away from an intended transaction in the previous year due to a poor service experience, and the 38% who believe that companies are paying less attention to providing good customer service, according to a recent American Express survey.

Unfortunately for the companies employing canned empathy, experts say it’s a misguided attempt to improve the customer experience quickly, without taking the time to hire well and train employees.

“You can’t script empathy,” says Bruce Temkin, managing partner of Temkin Group, a customer experience consultancy in Boston. “The right way to do it is to teach the agents about why you’re trying to show empathy, what is it, and why is it important.”

For empathy to be genuine, Temkin says. the agents must have autonomy over how they respond, and choose what course of action to take and what words to say. After all, even the best actor will sound wooden after 10 repetitions of a similar script.

“If you’re chatting in or calling in and you’re upset, you don’t want to be greeted with a robotic response,” says Arthur, an IT professional in Pennsylvania who asked to be identified without his last name so he could speak freely about past employers. “If you use real human interaction, unscripted talk, you’re going to get to the heart of the problem, you’re going to calm the customer down quicker.”

Unfortunately for Arthur, in his previous roles at Apple @aapl(AAPL)and Comcast (CMCSA) customer service support, he was required to give specific answers depending on the customer complaint and type of interaction. When he joined Apple in 2012, he said the company prided itself on not using a script. But by the time he left earlier this year, he says, the electronics giant had rolled out a program with three explicit steps for each call. While not exactly a script, the conversational path employees were supposed to follow left little room for detours.

“Within the first 60 to 90 seconds, you’re supposed to understand whatever the customer’s calling in about but also have a path of resolution in your mind,” he says. “Once you have that, you’re supposed to immediately start in with aligning the customer, assuring them you’re going to get this fixed and letting them know you feel the same type of way.”

Arthur said that Apple trained him to identify customer personality types: thinker, feeler, director, and entertainer. (An Apple spokesperson said that the company does not use a customer matrix.) Depending on which type the caller was, the agent was supposed to respond in a certain way. Arthur found that, rather than helping, these responses tended to irritate. “Oftentimes, those customers end up super pissed off,” he says.

Bad as that was, Arthur describes his experience working with Comcast as even more scripted. “If you didn’t say it a very specific way, you got dinged on it and your team manager was notified,” he said. “If you got dinged three times in a month, you had a meeting with your area manager and might get fired.”

Comcast spokeswoman Jennifer Khoury said that the company does not give scripts to its call center employees. “We do give them suggested guides for how to handle various calls and on-the-job training to make sure they are helping our customers with whatever they need,” she says. “We emphasize the need to listen to our customers, politely answer their questions and always treat them with respect.”

A spokesperson for Apple also said the company does not script customer engagement, instead giving advisors access to tools and guidelines to address product issues more quickly given the technical nature of AppleCare calls. The same spokesperson pointed to Apple’s No. 1 ranking for tech support by Consumer Reports, which goes back to 2007.

Redway Havens, the pen name of the author of a forthcoming memoir on his call center experience, Thank You for Calling, also worked for Comcast and found the empathy script rang false. “They were really trying to create the appearance that they cared about the customer when in fact they really don’t,” he says.

According to Havens, some of the most meaningful interactions in his call center career came in completely unscripted moments with customers. That aligns with the 69% of consumers surveyed by Software Advice who said their customer service experience improves when agents don’t sound like they’re reading a script.

Take the lady in her late 80s who routinely called at Havens’ newspaper call center job to ask the carriers to prop her paper up against her door because she couldn’t physically bend down to pick it up from the ground. “She would always call me directly and talk about the paper and her life,” he says. “She would always tell me how much she loved the newspaper but it was getting hard to pay for it. She had to choose between the newspaper and her meds and the electric bill.” (In the end, Havens said, she stayed a customer until her death.)

Employers should give customer service reps multiple examples of opportunities to show empathy and let them have some control over the interaction, Temkin says. They also should empower agents to actually help customers through follow up actions, rather than merely repeating their concerns, says Micah Solomon, a customer service trainer and consultant.

Arthur recalls a heartbreaking support request from a mother on the day of her daughter’s funeral, looking for help downloading photos from the girl’s iPhone to use as part of a slideshow in the ceremony. “She had already tried to chat with three other people and just disconnected on them,” he says. “In that case, genuine empathy did well in calming down the customer.”

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