Michiel Gaasterland
Michiel Gaasterland
Chief Brand Officer
Sep 24, 2018

Robots Can’t Care: Humans and Empathy in Customer Service


After a look at how chatbots are doing on the empathy front, we share six tips to help your team have more empathic—and therefore more successful—service conversations.

It’s not their fault. Despite the hype, robots just aren’t built to care. Empathy is not included.

That’s a shame, because as everyone from groovehq to Freshdesk and insightsquared knows, empathy is, ‘The closest thing to a customer happiness silver bullet that exists’—as well as being ‘The one skill that everybody in customer support must have.’

In short, empathy means understanding and reflecting the basic emotional needs of a customer.

As we know, while solid tech and good integrations will help us have the right info at hand to help solve a customer’s problem in one interaction whenever possible (which is super-important) customers also want it friendly, too!

And tech, no matter how advanced, always falls short in the warm and fuzzy department.

How are you, today?

Mitsuku is, according to many, the ‘world's best conversational chatbot’. She is a three-time winner of the Loebner Prize; the annual competition that awards prizes to the AI programs judged to be the most human-like.

Just for fun, I asked Mitsuku if she thought she could handle an eCommerce customer service query. It took less than 3 seconds before she very weirdly responded, “What are humans for? I do not see what use they serve!”


That’s pretty intense for the world’s best conversational chatbot!

To be fair, Microsoft’s AI chatbot, Tay, wouldn’t have done any better, either.

After being released in 2016, she quickly turned into a racist, sex-crazed neo-Nazi and was shut down. Her successor, Zo, went live soon after. But she’s developed some quirks recently too.

Chloe Rose Stuart-Ulin has been following her over the past 12 months and wrote just a few weeks ago, “Zo is politically correct to the worst possible extreme. Mention any of her triggers, and she transforms into a judgmental little brat”.



Mitsuku, Tay and Zo are all what you could call ‘properly’ artificially intelligent chatbots.

By that I mean they aren’t only preprogrammed with a bunch of canned responses, but they also employ natural language processing techniques that help them try to ‘read/see/hear’ your question, then figure out what your question actually means, then figure out an appropriate response—all without being explicitly programmed to do so.

That is tricky stuff! A ‘human-like’ conversation is considered one of the very hardest AI problems to solve. And it’s never been done yet.

The truth is, despite how they’re marketed, the vast majority of chatbots and assistants we encounter today are not really ‘AI’. They don’t understand anything. They are bots: simple tasks, automated in an app, with pre-programmed responses delivered when a keyword is triggered.

These bots may not be smart, but they are fantastic for handling simple, repetitive tasks or queries that can reduce customer service workload, and free reps to focus on more value-adding work.

They can also be employed as assistants managing simple tasks as a filter or gateway to a human conversation with a rep once a customer’s needs get a little more involved.

I’ll be posting more on this soon. For now, let’s focus on the biggest soft skill that robots lack. Down below are six ways you can show more empathy in service conversations. By doing the we can capitalise on what makes us uniquely human. And ultimately, have more successful service conversations.

Six ways to show more empathy in service conversations

customer-service-employees Image: Rawpixel - Unsplash

From beginning to end, empathy is at the core of a personal, friendly service experience.

The ability to put oneself in another person’s shoes is what it takes to persuade a customer to come back when the going gets tough. It’s what it takes to solve a complex problem well and reassure an unhappy customer. It’s also what it takes to successfully up and cross-sell, too.

So while empathy is a soft skill, it has hard value.

Sharing these six tips with your team will ensure they become more conscious of the value of empathy, and begin incorporating it into more service conversations over time.

1. Listen hard!

Listening might seem like an easy thing to do, but it is a tough skill to master. It can be a particular challenge when interacting with an unhappy customer, when under time pressure, or even when you already think you have the answer and need to restrain yourself from jumping in.

Maintaining emotional distance is key. This will let you not only help you avoid being pulled in by a customer’s stress or concerns but also appreciate the emotion and frustration behind what they’re saying.

Using positive phrases such as, “I see” “Yes” “Absolutely” “Sure” “OK” and “I hear you” throughout, will ensure that you are heard to be listening. From a customer perspective, is the most important thing of all. It will also help slowly defuse and tension in the situation. And by expressing empathy, your connection with your customer will deepen.

2. Be Mindful of Tone

With the massive explosion of both choices and channels over the past years, shoppers are often exhausted by the time they close down on a decision of what to buy. They may also have had to jump any number of barriers and roadblocks in actually getting hold of a rep to sort out a problem. So first impressions count.

Very few customers will appreciate a massively ‘up’ energy or over-enthusiasm. All customers do, however, appreciate calm and confidence. There is nothing quite so reassuring from a customer perspective as the feeling that you are in the hands of an expert. 

Knowing this, taking a few deep breaths before entering a conversation will give you a moment to collect your thoughts, and it will help lower your voice too—making it clearer, calmer, and more authoritative. 

3. Never Make Excuses

Harry Selfridge of the famed Selfridges department store in London once said, “The customer is always right”. And that’s never more true than when an issue or complaint arises.

Over all, customers want responsiveness, not excuses. It's a rep’s job to ‘make it right,’ no matter who is at fault, so responding with an excuse (whether valid or not) is likely to increase tensions rather than diffuse them.

Offering sympathetic statements is the right way to go here. Reassurances such as, “That’s not good,” “Oh, that’s not right,” and “I’m here to help solve this for you” will help convince a customer that you are fully on their side, which will help them trust you, which will make resolution that much easier. 

4. Use the Language of Understanding!

how-to-win-friendsIn Dale Carnegie’s famous book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, published way back in 1936, he encourages people to use this simple yet effective line: “If I were in your position, I would feel just as you do.” That immediately sends the message to customers that you are human too—and that you understand.

Whether it is spoken or written, there are many ways to express empathy:

  • “Yes, I completely understand how frustrating that is”
  • “You’re right, I realise how difficult it is to...”
  • “Aha, it is confusing, yes”
  • “Yes, I hate that you had to make this call today.”
  • “I’m glad you called today so that we can take care of this right away.”

Using these positively phrased sentences will help forge a connection with your customer. It will make it crystal clear that you empathise with their situation.

Remember that the definition of empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. Making it explicit is half the battle.

5. Make Customers Feel Unique

Writing on how to create a customer service culture, Shep Hyken tells the story of a successful surgeon friend of his.

While out playing golf with him, Hyken asks the surgeon if his work is boring. The doctor laughs and says, “All the surgeries are pretty much the same ... But, what’s not the same are the patients. Each of them are different. They are all people and need to be treated as if they are the only patient I have.”

That’s ultimately what makes him so successful. Hyken’s friend is not only a good surgeon, but also he is seen as a good person.

So remember, while this might have been the tenth time you’ve solved a particular issue that day, it is the one and (hopefully only) time for that specific customer.

The ability to continually reboot yourself throughout the day and remind yourself that every customer is unique will help you keep empathy in focus. 

6. Remember YOU are Unique!

unique-qualities Image: Levi Saunders - Unsplash

As humans, we are hardwired to connect. We are hardwired to help each other. And the exact opposite of tech, we are masters of intuiting big signals from little data. 

For example, every day, in all manner of situations, we 'read between the lines’. We look for the subtext: the inner meaning of things. Our senses are always on alert to figure when something is going the right way, or the wrong way—and figure out how to fix it.

However, we all have our own unique ways to connect with other people.

Some people have a wicked sense of humour. Others are incredibly fast at solving problems. And others have a natural bedside manner that everyone feels instantly comfortable with. 

By figuring out your own particular strength as a human being, you can bring this to bear on your service conversations too.

To be honest, all the best experiences I have ever had with a service rep were when I felt that I was talking with someone who really understood me. Someone with feelings and emotions, just like mine.

That, in a nutshell, is what empathy is all about. And now, I almost feel sorry for robots! 

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chatbots, AI, Zo, Tay, NLP, Softskills, Empathy

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