Empathy, performance and customer service

Here’s what I don’t like when being a customer in a bank or a shop – the other person not focussing on me for the length of our interaction. For example, in a mobile phone shop where the assistants clearly have an on-going conversation among themselves, and can hardly bear to tear themselves away to listen to my questions; I feel as if I have interrupted their business, rather than potentially being their business. Or in the bank where the clerk appears to lose interest once the interaction is nearly finished and her eyes swivel back to the computer screen without meeting mine to say goodbye. Or even at the doctor’s, where anything I say has to be typed into the computer and so that is where he looks.

Eye contact is the most obvious signal of empathy when face-to-face, even if it is a performance of empathy. To the receiver of eye-contact, the empathy feels real, or ‘real enough’.

Good customer service, including medical training, recognises the importance of performing empathy to make the customer feel good.

My friend who runs a restaurant knows that customers want an experience that has a lot of the make-believe about it, with just enough empathy between them and the staff  –  not too little and not too much. They don’t want to know about problems behind the kitchen door, nor do they want the waiter to be their new best friend. They want to sit in a bubble of attended privacy. Empathy from the staff is expected at certain points but not all the time.

Expected empathy norms are highly cultural and specific to events; we notice when the expectations are breached and there feels to be too little or too much empathy in a service encounter.

More on the performative aspects of empathy in Rifkin “The Empathic Civilisation”.

One Response to “Empathy, performance and customer service”
  1. Re ’empathy norms are highly cultural’: Nancy Clink in her interesting book ‘Time To Think’ which stresses the importance of eye contact, writes of an embarassing encounter with an aboriginal woman in her audience who pointed out that, in her culture, eye contact was a sign of disrespect. (The woman did offer to show her after the lecture how they showed respectful attention without eye contact.)

    I am finding your blog fascinating…

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