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On Empathy: A Letter We Shared with Our Happiness Heroes

Dec 5, 2016 4 min readWorkplace of the future
Photo of Carolyn Kopprasch
Carolyn Kopprasch

Chief of Staff @ Buffer

(Our Chief Happiness Officer, Carolyn, shared this note with our Happiness team after some deep auditing and reflection on our communications with our customers. If Carolyn’s note inspires or resonates with you, we’d love to hear from you in the comments!)

Hey Heroes. :)

I need to start this note with an apology. Instead of creating an environment where you’ve felt entirely free to speak and write and care for customers in your own unique and special way, I fear that we’ve created some misconceptions (and thus some behavioral and writing habits) of what it means to be and write in a “Buffery” way.

While there are some high-level concepts that feel key to that Buffer essence, this should still leave a lot of room for the personalized, empathetic, and unique customer service talents that you were hired for.

I’m hoping that this can be the beginning of a much larger conversation in our team. Let’s get a bit messy here, shall we?

The entire range of human emotion

I want us to feel comfortable expressing the entire range of human emotions that we feel.

Stay with me here.

To start, I think we’ve conveyed the wrong idea when it comes to writing in a “Buffery” way. The “Buffery” way is to communicate (mostly via writing) the same feelings as you would if the customer was in front of you.

It means taking the blame, expressing gratitude and regret when appropriate, and using your well-honed professionalism and empathy to connect with this customer, and the next, and the next. It does not mean that you have to act happy or positive.

Support conversations can be about learning, and discovery, and joy. But they can also be about frustration, and disappointment, and stress. Sometimes, the entirely appropriate reaction is to get down into the trenches with the customer and try to climb back out together.

Let’s go a little deeper into this concept, if you’re still with me.

Respecting the customer is honoring how they feel

I think that we can show the greatest respect for each customer by honoring the emotions that they’re having, not by trying to change those emotions. It’s a common feeling that the job of a customer service professional is to “turn it around” or “make the person happy.” This isn’t really the case, in my opinion. That’s a great outcome, but that’s not within our control, and I’m not convinced that we should even try.

What we can do is to honor and validate the emotion that the other person is experiencing through the expression of our own emotions in reply. This means crafting a reply that accurately portrays your own emotions, the ones that you’re feeling in response to their email. (Naturally, this can be quite tough to generalize, so snippets can feel stale here.)

Validating another person’s emotions is a tricky nuance, especially over a written medium. It doesn’t work to tell them that you validate them; you can only express that you feel that validation through your own emotions.

Validating someone’s feelings is a little bit like silence; everyone just feels it. If you say it, you kinda break it, right? (I’m sure I don’t have to explain this. How often have you been on hold and been told, “your call is important to us”? That’s something that you have to feel to believe!)

So, how do we do that? In my opinion, we’ll achieve this by trusting our intuition and leaning into the full range of human emotion.

If you feel angry, or sad, or frustrated that a customer is experiencing something… it’s totally okay to show that. If we’ve taught you that you should remain stoic or joyful when a customer is upset or anxious, please start to put that out of your mind!

We are extraordinarily empathetic animals

Have y’all heard of a thing called “microexpressions?” It’s an involuntary human reaction to experiencing an emotion yourself, or to seeing another person express an emotion. If someone smiles or frowns at you, you involuntarily mimic those facial movements, which then impacts your own mood.

We are, by nature, extraordinarily empathetic animals. If others are sad, it makes us sad. And we feel joy when others do. This is the magic of human interaction, yes?

I’m not saying that this is easy. Not only is it emotionally taxing to connect with dozens of people per day, it’s a highly cerebral task to convert these feelings into words that can be read on a page. It’s not simple, and it’s not easy.

This role isn’t for the faint of heart. You should take your self-care seriously, and you should feel tired and proud at the end of a day of this.

In most cases, your inclination will be to match their emotion. This is the kind, more empathetic thing to do. (Have you seen Inside Out, by the way?)

All emotions are accepted–and beautiful

Sadness and frustration and all their cousins are totally acceptable (even beautiful) human emotions, and you are welcome to treat them accordingly, in your customers and in yourselves.

Most importantly, if you ever feel held back on this front due to a feeling of what it means to “be Buffery,” please let me know. In fact, if you are saying, doing, experiencing, or typing anything that you feel holds you back from delivering the most excellent, authentic, and personalized customer service that you’re capable of… I want you to stop and tell us. Whether it’s because you think it’s expected of you, or because we’ve explicitly said it, please let us know as soon as you can and let’s figure it out.

Thanks for reading, my dear teamies. I hope that this just the kick off of a team-wide convo about these topics. We’d love to hear any thoughts, questions, or ideas that this sparks for you!

And hey, we’re doing great. Customers express gratitude daily for the hard work of the Buffer team, and your efforts are a huge part of that. When I dive into customer emails, I’m so proud of the work that you all do each day. You are doing an exemplary job, and we’re on our way toward being a world-class support team.

Let’s do even better.

Hugs and microexpressions,

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