This article is one of a series about how to improve your complaints handling. It will be especially useful to call handlers and customer service personnel. It is written by an expert trainer in the field who runs a specialist complaints handling training business as well as a leading corporate training company in the UK.

If you do some reading on complaints handling you must be thinking of improving your complaints handling skills or those of your team. Most writers on the subject focus on the need to approach the customer who is complaining with empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy is a word often used but I wonder how well understood it is. At a recent course we were running on complaints handling we posed this question. Asking delegates to define empathy proved interesting. It was clear to me that the word sympathy and empathy were being confused.

So before I can establish empathy with you, I need to know what empathy is. The dictionary definitions vary but touch upon: understanding of another's situation and feelings. This is different to sympathy which is more about feelings of pity or sorrow for the distress of another. Definitions also mention compassion.

So when dealing with complaints I am aiming to be empathetic to understand and anticipate the behaviour of the customer. It is in effect standing in the shows of the customer. So much for the conceptual discussion. How does that work in practice?

How does empathy work?

Take a complaint about some flowers not being delivered by a florist. The customer plucks up courage to complain. He is stressed by the simple process of calling. He does not know how the call will be received and naturally expects the worst. He has complained before to other shops and been fobbed off. The customer swallows hard and calls the shop to say the bouquet has not arrived.

The untrained inexperienced call handler might say: Thank you for telling me about this. What can I do to put this right?

The call handler is trying to be helpful and resolve the situation. However, the result from the customer is to raise their voice, their heart beats faster, they are getting angry. This call is off to a bad start. The problem cannot be made right. The flowers were not delivered and a anniversary celebration diminished by it.

Picture this as an alternative this response:

I'm sorry that we haven't delivered the bouquet as we expected. I understand that must be difficult for you, embarrassing and annoying, let me try and do something about that right now. To do that may I have your name and the delivery address please?

This is more likely to strike a chord with the customer. Did you spot the:

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