Empathy – Serve it to your customers

Seth Godin wrote a terrific post this morning about customer service titled, “You’re right!”  He shares his experience of writing a letter to complain about poor service only to receive a letter back from the proprietor that shouts, “You’re wrong!”

Why do business people argue with their customers?

It happens all of the time. Why? What’s the point? Who actually “wins” this argument?

It doesn’t matter who is (technically) right. It doesn’t matter that you can prove that the customer is wrong. What do you have to prove? That you can turn an angy customer into an enraged – and most likely – former customer? What’s your point?

I hope that, by now, you see that the only answer you should give is, “You’re right!”

When you manage a customer complaint by saying, “You’re right!,” you are practicing empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Empathy is not admitting that you are wrong. Empathy is not capitulation to a customer’s demand(s).

Empathy is saying, “You’re right, that is frustrating.” Or, “You’re right, I can see that you are disappointed.”

Sympathy is saying, “Oh, that’s too bad,” and then walking away from or hanging up on your customer.

Empathy enables you to connect with your customer – on an emotional level. Empathy also validates the customer’s feelings. He or she is angry; they are disappointed; they did not receive what they had expected.

You are saying, “You’re right…” You are not saying, “I am wrong.” You are seeking a solution – together. Even if that solution is to recognize that you should not continue to do business together in the future.

A classic example of the latter comes from the book, “Nuts! Southwest Airlines’ Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success,” by Kevin and Jackie Freiberg. The story is on page 269. I first heard Jackie Freiberg relate this story more than 10 years ago and it resonated with me:

A regular customer, one who frequently wrote in to complain, sent a particularly nasty letter to Southwest Airlines. The letter writer complained about their boarding process, their lack of meal service, the lack of a first class cabin, the cheerful attitude of their flight attendants, etc. In short, she complained about everything that Southwest Airlines did and did not do.

The customer service department was not sure how to handle this particular letter so they “bumped it upstairs” to Herb Kelleher, the co-founder and “colorful” CEO at the time. After carefully reading thie letter, Herb calmly wrote,

“Dear Mrs. ____, we will miss you!”


Herb Kelleher

Great story! Great strategy! Great customer service!

What’s your story? What experiences – or nightmares – can you share with our readers?

Add your comments below.


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  1. […] If I were the Customer Service head at the cruise line, here’s what I would have done. After reviewing the client history file, I would have answered their next letter of complaint with a simple, “Thank you! I am sorry that we did not meet your standards.” No discount voucher, no plea to give us another chance. Just say, “You’re right! We did not meet your expectations.” Here is a related post that I wrote earlier this year on this topic. http://www.thecompanyrocks.com/blog/2008/04/22/empathy-serve-it-to-your-customers/ […]

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