Empathy is trendy. Qualtrics XM Institute[i] has declared 2023 the Year of Empathy, and Forbes Magazine calls empathy the “most important leadership skill”.[ii] Because of this, customer service staff are receiving customer empathy training in droves.
But research shows a dark side to customer empathy that can quickly undermine the interactions we’d like to create.
Cognitive Scientist Paul Bloom, Against Empathy
In his 2016 book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, Paul Bloom, professor emeritus of psychology at Yale University, presents solid evidence that empathy can be counterproductive, even harmful, in many scenarios.
Through the lens of cognitive science, Paul Bloom makes a strong case for ending our fixation on empathy and applying rational compassion instead.
And while Bloom does not write explicitly about the customer experience, much of his research applies directly to customer interactions.
“Unmitigated communion makes you suffer when faced with those who are suffering, which imposes costs on yourself and makes you less effective at helping,” Bloom writes.[iii]
In simple terms: Empathy is exhausting.
Empathy Feels. Compassion Solves.
So, what’s the difference between empathy and compassion? While often used interchangeably, there’s a critical distinction between the two.
- Empathy is the act of seeing the world through the eyes of another or training yourself to feel their emotions.
- In contrast, compassion is the motivation to help another when presented with their problems without feeling the other person’s pain.
Four Drawbacks to Customer Empathy
Given all the attention customer empathy gets in the business world, let’s look at what the science reveals.
In fact, the downsides of customer empathy affect every angle of the customer experience – impacting service staff, individual customers, and entire groups of customers.
Drawback 1: Empathy Burnout
For the person empathizing, it’s tiring.
Within the context of personal relationships, empathy is healthy. For example, in a happy marriage, spouses feel elated when their partners get promoted at work. And loving parents are filled with joy when their children graduate from college. For our families and closest friends, making an effort to empathize is worth it.
But suppose your staff is expected to feel frustration, anger, confusion—or even elation over a customer’s new car purchase, and they have to do this for dozens of customers a day. That’s begging for staff turnover.
Symptoms of empathy fatigue include isolation, numbness or disconnect, a lack of energy, feeling overwhelmed or hopeless, and being unable to relate to others.[iv]
This is not how we want service staff to feel, yet empathy fatigue can occur in as quickly as one hour.[v]
Is focusing on customer empathy all day, every day the best strategy for your company? The science says “no.”
Drawback 2: The Helpless Empathizer
A second problem with empathy is that it can incapacitate the listener to the point where they cannot help.
In the relationship between patients and doctors, this is clear. For example, if a trauma surgeon were to experience the feelings of a bleeding patient, she would not be able to concentrate on stitching up his wounds.
We don’t need our therapists to experience our anxious or depressed feelings – we want them to help heal those problems within us and restore us to a healthy mental state.
To be good at their jobs, doctors mute their empathy. Lawyers and other professionals do this too.
Turning this back to customer service experiences, an annoyed customer wondering why their order was lost doesn’t need your service staff to feel annoyance. They need your associates to be competent, calm, kind, and solve the problem.
Drawback 3: Spotlight Effect
Joseph Stalin allegedly once said, “The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic.” Even though Stalin himself murdered millions, his words contain a truth. We can only empathize with one person at a time. As a group of people gets larger, it gets harder to empathize with them.
Clearly, the death of a million people is a greater evil than the death of one person. But because we’re wired to empathize with individuals, not with statistics, we focus on one person’s death and remain numb to the plight of millions.
Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, points out the vast difference between news coverage of the death of Natalee Holloway in 2004 and the Darfur genocide that was occurring at the same time. In his paper, Slovic quotes Mother Teresa: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”[vi]
Consider this spotlight effect in light of customer empathy when it’s a group being helped, not just an individual.
For instance, think of delayed flights where customer service staff are working to reroute hundreds of stranded strangers. Unfortunately, too many times, we’ve all seen this is precisely when companies lose every last shred of kindness.
And, of course, there is the question of which individual to focus on or empathize with in the first place — raising the most severe problem of bias.
Drawback 4: Preferential Empathy
From an evolutionary standpoint, empathy was valuable in keeping the “tribe” unified.
But within contemporary culture, by reinforcing biases, empathy is a blatantly bad strategy — often tragically so.
Founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, Bryan Stevenson, highlights how empathy can lead to the most unjust outcomes in a court of law. In his book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Stevenson shows how victim impact statements can be an instrument for injustice by appealing to our senses of empathy.
When a criminal is sentenced for his crimes, the victim is often asked to state how the crime has impacted their lives.
If the victim of the crime is easy for the judge to empathize with — for example, they might be young, pretty, wealthy, or white — judges are likely to impose a harsher sentence than if the victim is unattractive, older, or black.
In the United States, the victim’s race is the greatest predictor of who receives the death penalty. In Georgia, offenders are eleven times more likely to be sentenced to death if the victim is white than black.[viii]
“The expansion of victims’ rights ultimately made formal what had always been true,” Stevenson writes. “Some victims are more protected and valued than others.”
Even when the “tribe” is something as innocuous as a sports team, the bias within empathy is evident.
Researchers led by German psychologist and social neuroscientist Tania Singer found that soccer fans prefer to help those with the same favorite team. If a person’s favorite team is a rival, rather than helping that person by intervening in a conflict, they will watch the person suffer.
Basically, who we choose to empathize with strongly correlates with who we are — or who we aspire to be.
That means asking our customer service staff to express empathy is counterproductive because staff will tend to empathize exclusively with those customers they see as similar to themselves.
You can’t perfectly match the tribe of your staff to the tribe of your customers, nor should we want that because companies benefit by having a diverse clientele. Having diverse customers is to my mind, the single most important reason to loosen our grip on customer empathy.
Even at an Abercrombie store, where a grandmother might be buying a top for her grandchild, for good customer service, in some small way, associates must connect with that older customer.
So what’s the solution?
The Kindness Fix
Let’s return to Paul Bloom. Since he’s one of the preeminent authorities on this subject, let’s accept his recommendation to employ rational compassion instead of empathy.
Unlike empathy, compassion does not cause burnout.
In fact, in another study by Tania Singer, researchers measured brain activity in subjects who had undergone empathy and compassion training.
The researchers found that when the subjects watched videos of human suffering, those who had undergone empathy training experienced negative symptoms. But those who had undergone compassion training did not experience such symptoms.
Subsequent compassion training was used to reverse the negative effects of empathy training.
“[Training for] compassion may reflect a new coping strategy to overcome empathic distress and strengthen resilience,” according to the researchers.[ix]
This is so important it’s worth repeating. Science shows that training for empathy fails while training for compassion succeeds.
Within the context of business and customer experience, I use the term “kindness” instead of “compassion.” Having worked in customer experience and customer service disciplines for decades, I find that the word “kindness” better captures what we want our customer service staff to do.
To be kind is to be considerate of other people’s feelings and willing to help. Kindness upgrades the entire customer experience.
Kindness in Action
Furthermore, where “compassion” might feel vague or a bit treacly, “kindness” is concrete and tied to specific behaviors and principles. Here are a few of those kindnesses that companies can and should teach.
One kindness is to focus on problem-solving.
Instead of empathy in customer service, staff should focus on finding solutions to the problem at hand.
This inherently reduces tension and leads to positive customer AND representative outcomes.
Care for Staff:
Another way to apply the concept of kindness in customer service is to prioritize self-care for representatives.
By recognizing the emotional toll of their work and providing resources for self-care, companies can help ensure representatives can provide the best service.
Give the Gifts of Kindness:
Lastly, we should encourage staff to set the bar high when it comes to customer service experiences. Kindness evokes a generous spirit, and the best service includes small “gifts.” Gifts don’t have to be physical objects. Gifts can be insights into how customers can save money or reap more value from a product.
Gifts can also be tips and tricks for using products or services more efficiently. A gift can even be a warm, friendly interaction that adds a break to a customer’s otherwise ho-hum day.
In our own customer service evaluations, we measure the willingness of customer service reps to give these small gifts.
Encourage your staff to find new, innovative ways to add small ‘extras’ that unequivocally show customers they care.
This produces benefits not only for the customer but also for your staff. Happiness researchers have found that giving gifts produces happiness in the giver[x], not just the recipient.
In Sum: Promote Kindness
We should train our service staff to be more like surgeons and psychiatrists, not like spouses and parents. Let’s promote kindness within the world of customer experience.
As for empathy? In 2016, Paul Bloom wrote his masterfully researched book Against Empathy. Now, seven years later, with copious research accumulated, let’s use empathy to improve our personal relationships. Otherwise, kill it.
- [i] https://www.xminstitute.com/blog/2023-year-of-empathy/
- [ii] https://www.forbes.com/sites/tracybrower/2021/09/19/empathy-is-the-most-important-leadership-skill-according-to-research/?sh=25016a763dc5
- [iii] Paul Bloom, Against Empathy, pp. 139-140.
- [iv] https://health.clevelandclinic.org/empathy-fatigue-how-stress-and-trauma-can-take-a-toll-on-you/
- [v] Paul Bloom, Against Empathy, p. 139.
- [vi] Slovic, P. (2007). “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide. Judgment and Decision Making, 2(2), 79-95. doi:10.1017/S1930297500000061
- [vii] https://creativegood.com/blog/23/my-26-hour-delay-on-delta-air-lines.html
- [viii] Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, p. 142.
- [ix] Klimecki OM, Leiberg S, Ricard M, Singer T. Differential pattern of functional brain plasticity after compassion and empathy training. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2014 Jun;9(6):873-9. doi: 10.1093/scan/nst060. Epub 2013 Apr 10. PMID: 23576808; PMCID: PMC4040103.
- [x] https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/5_ways_giving_is_good_for_you