How to avoid empathy fatigue on your support team
Culture · 7 min read

How to avoid empathy fatigue on your support team

Amy Ellis
Posted December 15, 2016

Empathy fatigue is a condition that’s well-known outside the tech industry and barely known at all inside of it.

Social workers, therapists, nurses and others in the professional caregiving industry have known about the effects of what’s also called “compassion fatigue” for years. It can bring on lethargy, anger, apathy, physical sickness and more. Over prolonged periods it makes people less able to see what they’re doing as helpful.

While we may not think of support agents as being part of the caregiving industry, they are indeed dedicating their time to helping others (your customers), and as such, they too are at risk of empathy fatigue.

When left untreated, empathy fatigue makes it difficult for agents to see the customer behind each ticket, chat or phone call. It can leave them feeling burnt out, hopeless and even resentful. And the results can be disastrous for your customer’s experience and your bottom line.

Foster an empathetic culture and prevent burnout.

The good news is that we’ve found that building empathy into our company culture and organizing teams around the customer experience naturally helps prevent empathy fatigue.

When every team is tasked with prioritizing the customer experience, the role of support agents as voice of the customer is elevated, allowing agents to feel effective and empowered, reducing helplessness and hopelessness. Additionally, when empathy is a key tenet of an entire organization, the natural ebb and flow of any individual agent’s ability to empathize is more easily smoothed out. When one person experiences fatigue, the rest of the team is there to assist or relieve them so that person can resume the task with renewed enthusiasm.

At FullStory, we work hard to cultivate a culture defined by customer empathy. Here are three ways we do it:

1. All-hands support all the time.

All-hands support is one of the most powerful tools available for building empathy towards both your customers and your support team.

We have a permanent all-hands arrangement because it exposes the entire company to the problems customers encounter within our product. It puts engineers and designers in a position to see common problems and implement quick fixes to pesky issues. For many teams using all-hands support, it even means delivering better support overall.

The thing most companies fear about all-hands support is a reduction in quality. Letting non-support reps answer tickets could take a turn for the worse, as Big Cartel discussed on the Help Scout blog last year. But we’ve found that setting a few simple guidelines and offering plenty of support (get it?) for our less support-adept teammates mitigates most of this risk.

Thanks to our all-hands approach, the product team sees eye to eye with those working on the front lines of support. Engineers, designers, and even executives are responding to those same customers, seeing the same issues first-hand. As a result we’re able to foster a higher level of trust and respect for the validity of the issues championed by support, generating empathy both for our customers and for our teammates.

2. Organize teams around the customer.

Support agents, like members of other caregiving professions, take on the stress and problems of those they serve (in this case, your customers). That empathy is a crucial part of how customers’ problems get solved.

But when that empathy has no outlet inside the company, and there’s no way for the voice of the customer to leave your help desk, you put your support team at greater risk for empathy fatigue and overall loss of job satisfaction. Bearing witness to the frustration and disappointment of their customers can rapidly lead to burnout unless support agents feel empowered and effective in fixing customers’ issues for good.

Of course, prioritizing customer concerns—especially if they affect only one or two people—over “fun stuff” like feature-building can be hard for a product team to reconcile. In order to make decisions around the short-term development roadmap, all bugs and feature ideas at FullStory are filed the same way into a tool called Clubhouse, where they’re automatically stack-ranked based on a combination of factors such as impact on customers and how much work is involved. This allows our engineers, designers and product people to efficiently improve FullStory by pulling tasks directly off the top of the list.

But ensuring that bugs, product ideas and feature requests can be captured and scored is just half of the solution. You still need to make sure you don’t lose sight of the actual customer experiences behind each submission.

To close the loop, we have teammates called Huggers — a special role that straddles the lines between product and account management, marketing, support, and even operations, with the express purpose of representing our customers’ interests. They’re the ones who will light fires and flip tables to make sure the voice of the customer is being heard.

True empowerment means involving your support team in real conversations about what to prioritize and relying on them to uncompromisingly represent the customer’s needs in each situation. Sometimes, that means imbuing them with mighty Hugging powers.

3. Let your customer’s experience speak for itself.

One of the hardest parts about building a customer-focused culture is that sometimes the voice of the customer is simply hard to understand.

When you work on a product every day, you lose sight of things like painful workflows and awkward UX. If you rely solely on support tickets, bug reports or data points, you won’t see the reality of the customer experience. To truly understand, you need to let the customer’s voice speak for itself.

That’s not just why we built FullStory — it’s why we use it every day, across every department.

Each support ticket we get comes with a session link that shows us exactly what that customer’s experience was like on our site. This serves several purposes:

  • It lets us offer faster and better support without feeling like we need to badger customers for more and more detail about their issues.

  • Sharing the customer’s story as a FullStory playback cultivates empathy and reinforces our customer-focused culture across all product teams.

  • Everyone on support finds it easier to approach new tickets with genuine curiosity and eagerness, rather than dread or frustration.

With this approach, even the most enigmatic of support tickets becomes an opportunity to see our site through our customer’s eyes and learn something new:

Empathy fatigue is based on a limited-resource model; that is to say, a support agent arrives at work each day (or week, or year) with a limited amount of empathy, and must either “spend” it judiciously or risk burning out. Excess time used trying to decipher a cryptic ticket or struggle through a less-than-forthcoming customer conversation produces a drain on that empathy supply.

FullStory’s playbacks help us dig into the issue with efficiency and clarity, saving not only our own empathy reserves, but also our customers’ patience and attention span. Support becomes less fatiguing for both sides of the help desk.

Real human support.

Spending eight hours a day listening to frustrated, confused and sometimes angry customers is a tough task for even the most seasoned support professional. Simply compelling your support team to “put the customer first” without the necessary operational support is a recipe for apathy rather than empathy.

To properly support (and scale) a support team, you need to consider the psychological resources of the people on your team (and your organization) and how they scale. It’s not magic — it’s just about setting up the kinds of processes that will let your support team do their best work as you get bigger.

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