Empathy and the invisible faceless contact centre people

Empathy is the single most important skill of customer care and the single hardest ability to learn.  How do you imbue your team with empathy?

“I understand how you’re feeling.”  “Do you? Do you really?”

Defined as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.

Science Fiction actors (for the vast majority) have never been in space but they can make us believe they have.


This article asks you to consider in a structured way the area of emotions and how they apply to customer interactions from a contact centre perspective.

Whilst every interaction with a customer is unique by virtue of two people having a conversation, understanding your emotional role on behalf of your business culminates in the best results for any business.

I am not a psychologist but I have worked in businesses as the primary point for escalations for over two decades and the below has helped me in those roles.

  • Psychological building blocks
  • Contact Centre Actors
  • Bringing it all together
  • Wrap up

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Psychological building blocks

In touch with your emotions, building blocks.

Some psychologists postulate that there are a number of basic building block emotions.

You can combine these building blocks into more complex emotions.

Source: Wikicommons

In 1980 Robert Plutchik constructed a wheel-like diagram of emotions visualising eight basic emotions, plus eight derivative emotions each composed of two basic ones.

That is to say, for right or wrong, it’s a postulate.

Orange, yellow, light green and light blue are considered positive emotions and the rest negative emotions.


The key to empathy is to understand the emotions of the other person.  As a result you need to work out what building blocks they’re using.

Consequently combining basic emotions leads to complex emotions.


Time for an acting lesson in empathy

When you’re on the phone you can’t use visual clues but you can use questions.

Practicing the ability to work out what emotions the other person is feeling, is empathy.

One approach is to treat it like an exercise in “guess what this person is feeling”.


So just as a light hearted exercise actors attempt to convey emotions in the following

Whilst an actor is attempting to convey an emotion, working with people allows you experience real emotion.

When you work in sales, customer care or any other public facing role, you’re dealing with real people and real emotions.

They are bringing their story to your door and your first step is to work out their current emotions.


Maya Angelou is often quoted as saying “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

For clarity Maya Angelou was an American poet, singer, memoirist, and civil rights activist.


For those who work in contact centres picking up on auditory clues as to what the person calling is feeling is equally challenging as it is important.


A guys walks into a shop…

My wife jokes with me that “all the ladies in Tesco are asking for you”.  I go into the shops maybe once or twice a month.

I work on my empathy skills even in social scenarios.  Like a muscle it needs to be exercised.

When I go up to the till, I look for visual and auditory clues as to how the person who is looking after me is doing.

I make a point of asking their name / working out their name and using it in the conversation.

Yes they’re there to serve me and get through the process of checking my groceries but there is an opportunity to engage with another human.

Why would I overlook that opportunity?


Consider a situation where you have the power of life and death over two people.  One is a complete stranger and the other is someone who you know really well.

Which one gets saved?  Why?

Without getting too scientific, people who you are able to form an emotional connection with tend to result in a better or worse experience for both parties.

As a result, remember both parties create an emotion in the other person.  This is human interaction.


Contact Centre Actors

Screamers and emapthisers

A person rings up screaming and using expletives on the phone.  You use your empathy and recognise the emotion as rage.

They’re ringing up to get two things not just one.

The first is their rage needs to be dealt with.

Once their rage has been navigated you can then deal with the core of their business issue needs.

Their rage is one of two things,

  1. an emotional reaction to an unfavourable situation for them or
  2. an attempt to distract you by making you emotional.


An empathiser is someone who rings up, quiet and emotionally controlled.

They too need an unfavorable situation resolved and they are also attempting to distract you.

Both want their situation resolved but are using two different techniques to achieve their goal.


As the employee of the company you have two tasks regardless of the role.

Consequently you have not only a process / procedure to deliver but also you want to manipulate this persons emotion into a positive state.

Any computer or website can deliver procedures, human to human contact enables a “give and take” for both parties.

Similarly and again as Maya Angelou says “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”


The combinations of skills

Social engineering

Derren Browne has made a career out of not just being able to read people but learning how to manipulate situations to influence people’s decision making.

In his own description of what he does it’s suggestion, psychology, misdirection and showmanship.  Empathy features throughout.


In terms of computer security, social engineering is the use of deception to manipulate individuals into divulging confidential or personal information that may be used for fraudulent purposes.

So when a person rings into the centre and you take the call you are faced with a myriad of potential challenges

  • Firstly is this person actually a customer?
  • Next what process / procedure will deliver the most effective and correct answer?
  • Also is there an upsell / cross sell opportunity?  (Not appropriate for every scenario)
  • Finally how do I change the emotional state from a negative one to a positive one… or continue the emotion being positive even if the result is not what the customer wants.


Soft skills

This approach is collectively know as soft skills defined as personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.

It could also just be termed empathy.

Soft skills are a combination of

  • people skills,
  • social skills,
  • communication skills,
  • character of personality traits,
  • attitudes,
  • career attribute,
  • social intelligence and
  • emotional intelligence quotients among others

that enable people to

  • navigate their environment,
  • work well with others,
  • perform well, and
  • achieve their goals with complementing hard skills


Bringing it all together

As an agent

Master of yourself

Personal self management of your emotions is primary.  You need to control your own emotions before you can deal with someone else’s.

Being able to deliver a process / procedure is fairly refined for most businesses but the best of the best agents can manipulate a callers emotional states.

Empathy is the general term for the skill of understanding what the other person is feeling and thinking about.


A common trick in a contact centre is when a person starts shouting “I want to speak to your manager?”  “No problem, I’ll just transfer you.”

The call is then routed to another agent (no one more senior) but the caller believes they have achieved and their emotional state changes.

As a result the second agent has a different state to navigate from with the same processes / procedures to deliver.


Most importantly a blind person can emote.  Just because you’re on a phone call doesn’t mean you can’t.

It is common contact centre knowledge that you can hear the smile in a person’s voice.


Dealing with a screamer

Learning to control your own emotion when someone is screaming at you is a great first step.

Trying to stay quiet to allow the person vent their rage is important.  Don’t say anything until you’re asked “Are you there?”

“Yes, sir / madam, I’m listening intently.”

Remembering that you are not the object of their rage, you’re a stranger to them, instead politely and calmly “I hear you, would you like me to help?”

Next, personalise the interaction.  Ask them how they wish to be addressed.  “Would you preferred to be called Mr. Bloggs or Joe?”

“Hi XXX, my name is Philip and I’m going to help you as best I can today.”


Post contact

Remember that every contact the person you were last chatting to will have had an effect on your emotions.

Empathy is a two sided sword.  People have an effect on you as much as you have an effect on them.

If that effect is negative you need to let a manager know.  It’s a managers job to help you help yourself.

Managers can’t help you if you don’t communicate.  Remember you’re a team and your team wants to help.


As a manager

Emotional soup

You face a variety of topics, challenges and skills to master.

As part of the mix, you need to understand your own emotional quotient also known as emotional intelligence.

Once you understand the sciences its then down to you to impart this knowledge to your teams.


An empathy filled list of areas if ever there was one.

  • Self-Awareness.  Firstly the ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others.
  • Self-Regulation.  Next is the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods and the propensity to suspend judgment and think before acting.  This includes critical thinking.
  • Motivation.  Furthermore a passion to work for reasons that go beyond the external drive for knowledge, utility, surroundings, others, power or methodology and are based on an internal drive or propensity to pursue goals with energy and persistence.
  • Social Awareness.  Also the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people and how your words and actions affect others.
  • Social Regulation.  Finally the ability to influence the emotional clarity of others through a proficiency in managing relationships and building networks.

When the day starts for the team each will have their emotions at different levels.  Each person is unique.

As a result, once you’ve gotten yourself buttoned down it’s time to work with your crew and help them control their own.



Often it’s hard to see through emotional soup.  Past histories, events and dramatic moments can all serve to be influencers.

Cold hard metrics provide an objective review technique to help any manager see things from an unemotive vantage point.

Using metrics and recognising and addressing personal motivations is a full time focus no matter what size of team you have.

Quality processes and procedures can help your own management approach in helping to automate your process and remove personal bias.

Remember its more important to understand how your team is feeling than just look at their numbers.


The fear of shame

Most people aren’t afraid in the sense of being “eaten by a wild animal”.  In a workplace setting people are afraid of being “shamed”.

To clarify shame in the workplace is a social stigma (perceivable social characteristics that serve to distinguish them from other members of a society) which results in fear.

Helping your team deal with fears is actually helping them to deal with their fear of shame.

Try to recognise where someone might not understand something, or fear looking foolish.

Consequently how can you address / support that person in a manner appropriate to them to overcome that feeling?


As a director

If you come through the ranks and earn the title of “been there, done that” your role changes beyond recognition from where you started.

A director’s role is that of trust.  You communicate your vision of where we’re going and you leave it to your managers to get you there.

In movies a film director controls a film’s artistic and dramatic aspects and visualizes the screenplay (or script) while guiding the technical crew and actors in the fulfillment of that vision. The director has a key role in choosing the cast members, production design, and the creative aspects of filmmaking.

In business a director is responsible for the direction of the company whilst simultaneously managing legal and emotional direction as well.

Furthermore empathy as a director is just as important as an agent, just the focus of your audience has changed.


Wrap up

It is one thing to say you understand an emotion and another to have experienced it first hand.

Life experiences help with empathy but you are master of your own emotions.  Learning to control or direct your emotions is a lifetime challenge.

I live in a world of computing so having systems, algorithms and processes all work very well for me.  I like binary options.

Over the years, my wife who is formally trained in psychology and my own life experiences help me understand life is all about the grey, not the black and white binary I would like to see.

Soft skills are a life skill for everyone to learn for every walk of life.

If there’s anything in this article you’d like to chat to me about you can contact me here or on social media.




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