How to show empathy in your customer service responses (with examples)

Customer service agents work in customer support centreWhen you work in customer service, it’s inevitable that you’ll spend a lot of your time in touch with people who are not too happy with your company right now. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, you’ll be writing a response to a complaint, as a customer will be getting in touch exactly because they have a problem.

Naturally, that won’t always feel fun for you. But it does point to how crucial your role is. Customers are a business’s most important asset. Keeping them is what keeps a company in business.

Customer loyalty isn’t a given

But customers are more savvy than ever, and they know how many options are out there. Their loyalty is not guaranteed. Indeed, research from PwC has shown that, worldwide, 32% of all customers would stop doing business with a brand they loved after just one bad experience.

Customer service is only one part of the customer-experience picture, but a pivotal one: you’re dealing with people in those crunch moments when they are less than thrilled with the company. You have the potential to turn their experience around – and stop them from taking their business elsewhere.

When you’re faced with a mountain of complaints and feeling under time pressure, it can be easy to treat writing your responses as a numbers game. But if you prioritise speed, you might rely too heavily on template text that only sort of addresses the actual issues that this customer is having. Or you could inadvertently fall into a brisk, impersonal tone that sounds cold and corporate instead of caring and human.

That all-important tone of voice

The fact is, how you respond rivals efficiency in terms of customer experience – and customers’ expectations. This ‘how’, found in the tone of the service you provide, can hugely affect how your customers feel about your company.


Image: PwC


This is why the tone of voice you create in your customer service emails and messages is so important. And the best tone of voice to use with an unhappy customer? An empathetic one.

Now, honestly: tone of voice in writing is tricky. It’s an imperfect art because writing lacks the literal tone of voice we use (and respond to) when we speak with someone. Instead, written words are filtered through the reader’s frame of mind at the time they read them.
You can’t control that. But there is still a lot you can do to express care and understanding for their predicament – while also helping to resolve it for them.

Here, we’ll look at some simple but powerful techniques you can use to help you show empathy in your customer service responses, and you’ll see the difference they can make in before-and-after examples of an email.

Read their message carefully

Yes, this one might sound too obvious for words, but we’re all guilty of skim-reading sometimes – especially when we’re in a hurry. But taking an extra few moments to read the customer’s message closely will ensure you have all the information you need to write that empathetic response, as well as to fully solve their problem.

If the customer has listed multiple aspects to their complaint or issue, note each one down to be sure you address them all. Check for a chain of communication: is this the first time they’ve been in touch? What have they been sent already?

And as you read, try to get a sense of how the writer feels (or is likely to feel). Look at the problems themselves and anything else they mention. Think about how you might feel in their place. But also consider that not everyone will have the same reaction in a situation: look for hints in the kind of language they use.

Tap into the customer’s perspective with questions

After you’ve read the message carefully, pause one moment more to make sure you’re thinking from the customer’s point of view and where they are right now – in other words, practise empathy.

Here are a few simple but vital questions to work through to do this (as well as to help clarify all the information you should include):

  • What are the issues the customer has raised?
  • How do they seem to feel, or how are they likely to feel, about these issues?
  • Which aspect of the problem seems most important to them?
  • Considering what you know of them, how is your reply likely to make them feel?
  • What do they already know about the subject? What more do they need to know?
  • What other interactions, if any, have they had with customer service or the company so far?
  • What will satisfy them?

Another key question to ask yourself is how do you want the customer to feel after they’ve read your reply? (This is actually a great question to ask before doing just about any kind of writing, and it’s always a key part of our training. It’s good to remember that our decisions are often led by our emotions).

Also, what do you want them to think, know or do? Be clear what the main message you have to get across to them is, and don’t lose sight of that as you compose your response.
Template text and time pressure can play havoc with the tone in your customer service responses. Here’s how to bring empathy into your emails and messages (and bring customers back around), via @EmphasisWriting Click To Tweet

Apologise if the situation calls for it – and make it sincere

A simple ‘I’m sorry’ can go a long way in placating a peeved customer – in some cases, it will be the most important thing you do in your response. But be sure to make your apology count. To do this:

  • do it in your opening paragraph
  • make sure it sounds sincere and accepts responsibility
  • consider repeating your apology at the end if you’re writing a longer email that deals with a number of significant issues.

Try not to accidentally write a non-apology apology – the kind that adds caveats or doesn’t actually take responsibility for anything, like ‘If you feel you have been inconvenienced, we offer apologies.’ This is likely to be as annoying as having no apology at all.

Instead, write it more or less as you’d say it, and acknowledge responsibility in a genuine way: for example, ‘I’m sorry our service fell short.’

And whether you include an out-and-out apology or not, be sure to acknowledge the customer’s feelings. You could write something like ‘I understand that not receiving your login information after two days is very frustrating.’ (And then, of course, be sure to supply that information!)

Do your best to see things from their perspective so you can find the best word to describe their current feelings. Having your feelings recognised and acknowledged is very powerful.

Use a reader-friendly structure for emails and letters

For many responses, the formula SCRAP will help you write a reply that is logically structured and easy to follow.

The acronym stands for situation, complication, resolution, action and politeness. Here’s how it works:

Set the scene: thank them for their email or letter about the situation, and apologise or acknowledge their feelings.

Briefly outline the problem they’ve brought to you, to show you understand it.

Give the solution, outcome, or answer to their issue or question.

Explain clearly what you or the company are going to do or have done to sort things out – or any action the customer needs to take.

Leave them with a good impression. The end is an opportunity to apologise again (if that’s needed), to invite them to come back to you if they need more help and to finish with a courteous sign-off.
If you’re writing something a little different, like letting a customer know if their formal complaint will be upheld, you could start with the main message – the yes or no. After that, you could go into a bit of (relevant) detail about why this was the decision.

Use clear, simple and natural language

Making an effort to keep your writing clear and easy to read is always a sign of respect for your reader, whatever you’re writing. But empathetic language in particular should be clear, natural, easy to understand and (where you feel it’s appropriate) conversational. Go for friendly and professional, avoiding being too informal or pally.

Use ‘I’ and ‘we’ to take responsibility for the situation, but try not to overdo the corporate ‘we’ that keeps the customer at a distance.

You’ll sound human and transparent when you use simple, concise language – that means choosing short words more often than long ones (which can leave you sounding overly cold and formal). So, write ‘then’ or ‘next’ rather than ‘subsequently’, and ‘as soon as you can’ not ‘at your earliest convenience’.

And favour the active voice over the passive, as this tends to sound more natural and avoids making it sound like you or the company are ducking the blame. So, for example, you’d write:

we didn’t deliver the package on time

instead of

the package was not delivered on time.
There are a few exceptions to this rule and it usually comes down to being tactful. For example, the passive ‘the form was not filled in correctly’ is more diplomatic than ‘you made a mistake filling in the form’.

Be specific (but keep it relevant)

Increasingly these days, people expect a level of personalisation throughout their customer experience – and that should extend to customer support replies. Part of this will be down to how your system keeps track of people across their whole customer journey and the interactions they’ve had before, to carry over information and remember them across every touchpoint.

You may or may not have any control over that side of things. But in your writing, you can adopt a personalised approach too. Show you’ve ‘heard’ the customer by referencing specifics from their message of the problems they’re facing, rather than referring generically to ‘issues’ or ‘poor service’.

And give your messages an extra human touch where the customer has given you the opportunity. Do they mention another person (or even a pet) who’s affected by the issue, or any other knock-on effects? Refer to these too.

But don’t feel that being specific means you have to provide lots of detail about processes on your side of things, unless it’s genuinely important they know. Remember it’s about them, not you.

Empathy in action

Now let’s look at all this in action. First, we’ll look at a customer’s complaint email, then at an example of writing without empathy – and then with it.




Putting empathy to work

As we’ve touched on, a customer’s experience is made up of every contact they have with your company. Any one of these interactions – as well as the sum total of them all – can make or break a customer’s relationship with you.

In your role, you are in a prime position to help strengthen that relationship, and we hope this article has given you some inspiration to do that with your next response. (And every one after that.)

We go into even more detail on how to bring more empathy into your customer service writing in our guide How to write with empathy. You can download that below. (And feel free to share it with your customer service team or colleagues.)

Download How to write with empathy now


Image credit: SpeedKingz / Shutterstock

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