Too Much Empathy Can Backfire

Lauren Krause
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Customer service professionals are taught to be empathetic while handing a complaint. Agents who go to great lengths to put themselves in the customer's shoes may find that too much empathy can backfire, negatively impacting the company. By finding the right balance, service professionals can complete a conversation successfully while pleasing everyone involved.

There's no question that empathy has a place in customer service. When agents are able to understand the customer's perspective, they can alter their communication styles accordingly and deliver the best possible solutions. Without empathy, service professionals could be perceived as cold and ineffective.

When taken to the extreme, however, too much empathy can turn the focus away from the customer. If the agent identifies strongly with a customer because of a similar background or experience, the agent may begin to project his own preferences onto the situation. As a result, he may deliver solutions that he would want in the same situation -- regardless of the customer's needs.

Findings in a study by Johannes Hattula, Walter Herzog, Darren Dahl and Sven Reinecke of Imperial College suggest there are negative effects of an over-empathetic mindset. According to the study, too much empathy causes people to fit each situation into their own life stories. Instead of imagining the customer's reaction to a problem, the person imagines himself in the situation. The resulting emotional reaction makes the person more likely to ignore market research. In short, too much empathy can take away an agent's objectivity.

For service professionals, the concept of being too empathetic may be difficult to process; after all, many companies view it as a service fundamental. Fortunately, findings in the Imperial College study also suggest that when professionals are reminded that they are displaying too much empathy, they can reign in their behavior. For service department managers, this may mean watching employees carefully to identify when personal biases are coming into play.

The appropriate amount of empathy varies from company to company. Apple, which wants to make its customers feel supported, encourages its Apple store Geniuses to empathize strongly with each person who comes in the stores. In the process, it has built a comfortable service atmosphere and a high level of brand loyalty. The highly empathetic model does not necessarily work for every company, though. Apple sells expensive products and relies on repeat business for upgraded models; a company that sells inexpensive products or conducts one-off transactions may not need as much empathy.

In the end, individual companies must determine how much empathy is too much. By examining the service agents and measuring the department's outcomes, managers can understand whether empathy negatively impacts overall effectiveness.

Although research into the negative effects of too much empathy is limited as of 2015, the early signs seem to advise caution. By reminding agents of their biases and reigning in over-empathic agents, managers can keep their service departments focused on the customer.

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  • Robert Bruning
    Robert Bruning

    I'm sure, when the time comes, that Apple will build the proper amount of empathy into their Customer Service Apps.

  • Roberto W.
    Roberto W.

    My opinion of empathy is the correct one. Forget my employer.

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