The Case For Compassionate Empathy

One of the most sought after skills for a Customer Centric Professional is empathy. It’s easy to find article after article on how important it is the support world.

Empathy is the ability to imagine oneself in the shoes of another to see their perspective. It’s imagining as if you’re having the issue the person that your helping is having.

While empathy as a term is well liked, I don’t think it’s perfect for a Customer Centric Professional. It doesn’t convey action to resolve the situation.

To be in the right mindset for helping customers, we need to introduce compassion. Often empathy and compassion get mixed as if they’re synonyms. They’re related words.

Compassion is being consciousness of someone’s distress with a desire to ease it.

The difference between the two seems small at first. Zoom out to the bigger picture, and the differences are vast. Compassion is acknowledging the problem and working to resolve it!

Still, on its own, compassion isn’t enough. It has its flaws. It doesn’t put one in the position of another person.

Think of both words from the viewpoint of a Customer Centric Professional. It’s hard to create a connection with someone if you can’t imagine their situation. And it’s hard to create a feature if you don’t understand the customer’s problems. It’s also hard to solve a problem if you’re not driven to solve it.

Let’s improve empathy and compassion and use them together. This fusion creates a much more powerful skill: Compassionate Empathy.

The definition of Compassionate Empathy for a Customer Centric Professional is:

Acknowledging and valuing the position of the person that you’re helping and working to resolve their situation

When framed like this, the viewpoint becomes a super-power.

It means that when someone has a concern, you acknowledge it. You value the concern. When necessary, it’s okay to say you’re sorry. Or if you’ve been in that situation before, you can relate to the customer.

Your next step is working to resolve the concern. Because you have compassion, you’re driven to take care of the issue.

Compassionate empathy conveys action while understanding the position of the person you’re helping.


Compassionate empathy isn’t something one hires and has for the rest of their life. Like any other skill, it requires practice. It’s not set it and forget it. Somedays you’re able to channel more compassionate empathy and some days you’re not. If the pains of a customer base changes, it requires one to learn about those new pains.

Not every response requires a response filled with Compassion empathy. Sometimes all that’s needed is hospitality. That’s a friendly and warm response. Sometimes someone needs a reminder of their username, how to do a task, etc. These answers don’t require you to enter the position of the person or be sympathetic to their situation.


Reading and listening that formed these thoughts

Intercom: Does your support team know more about your product than you do?

Sabrina Gordon, a customer support lead at Intercom shares the value that a support team can provide to a product team.

She highlights the difference between survey feedback and unsolicited feedback.

To define

Survey feedback is when you reach out to customers after the fact. It could be in the form of “How do you like XYZ?” survey sent a week after a customer used XYZ. The danger with this feedback is it’s only regarding what you ask about.

Unsolicited feedback is from anyone directly working with customers. This is picking up on feedback as the customer uses XYZ. Think of this feedback as you’re already interviewing your customers.

Applying this thinking to a product

Say your product team releases a great new feature overhauling the permission settings for your service.

Two weeks after launching, the product team notices it’s not used as much as they expected. To figure out why they send out surveys to customers using the feature to get their feedback. Responses come back and the people that are using it rave about it. At this point, without looping in your support team, they might think they need to market the feature more.

In a world where the product team also uses unsolicited feedback, they would also incorporate going to the support team for the research. Right away, the support team could point an issue that tells a different story from the survey: A small portion of those who use the permission settings are confused on how to enable the new settings. The confusion causes an unknown amount of customers never to enable the new permissions.

This feedback provides the product team a place to go back and fix the confusion. The support team can fit into reducing the uncertainty by improving the support docs on the permission settings.

Tagging Unsolicited Feedback

Sabrina builds on how Intercom uses the Unsolicited feedback.

One of the most important things we do at Intercom is tag every single conversation that comes into our inbox with both a team tag and a category tag. The team tag denotes what product team owns that feature or part of the product, while the category tag describes what type of conversation we had.
Using these tags, our product team can create dashboards, look at unusual spikes, consistent trends, explore conversations and get insights into what we should be working on next.

This allows Intercom to see into the customer journey and where support requests are coming from.

Make it Happen

I recently finished Getting Things Done by David Allen. It’s a 269-page book on how to get things done. Which might seem like overkill but it’s full of good information on task-management.

In the book, Allen makes his case for a system that he’s designed to get things done. The root idea is to come up with a system to process all the “stuff” that comes up in life. Stuff is any to-do. From a rebranding project at work to getting your kitchen sink fixed. It’s all stuff that can float up in your mind at any given point in a day and interrupt and ruin your workflow.

The most value I took away is creating a to-do system to capture your ideas in a way that is actionable to you.

Here are three points that I’ll be incorporating into my routine:

  • A Weekly Review
  • Next Action Decisions
  • Focusing on the Outcome

The Weekly Review

For me, one of the most satisfying feelings is heading out on vacation with all the loose ends at work tied up. It feels so great to be on top of everything, right? Of course, a few days off doesn’t hurt either.

That feeling is the weekly review. Every week have an hour on your calendar where you cover what happened over the last week.

Over a week, things get messy, and you get pulled into unexpected directions. It’s good to close the loop on your tasks and review your to-do list.

After this hour, your to-do list is clean and clarified. If there’s a simple task lingering on your to-do list, finish it up during the review. Catch up on emails, support tickets, and other stuff. And finally, set what you need to do for the next 5-7 days.

The weekly review is critical to a well-working to-do system. Without it, the whole process falls apart. It clears your mind and sets you up for success.

Next Action Decisions

Straightforward and sweet. Next action decision is asking What’s next? It empowers you to be able to move actions, to-dos, and projects to the next step and keep things running.

Before reading Getting Things Done, on my to-do list I had:

Katie’s battery

What the heck does that mean? It’s not a to-do, nor does it show what action is necessary. In reality, that meant clear the corrosion off of Katie’s car battery. The next action was getting the supplies to clear off the corrosion.

Next action decisions take vague stuff into actionable items. This is valuable for many reasons. Maybe you’re groggy on a Monday morning and looking for a quick win to spark your week. Look at your to-do list for something with a simple next action and get it done! Or, maybe you’re towards the end of 1-hour meeting that you don’t remember the purpose of. Ask “What are the next action steps?” this sets ground rules and expectations for what’s to be accomplished after the meeting.

Focusing on the Outcome

It’s hard to create a task when you don’t know what the end product looks like. As the famous quote goes:

A vision without a task is but a dream. A task without a vision is drudgery. A vision and a task are the hope of the world.

By being able to focus on the outcome, you’re able to create the tasks to achieve the outcome.

Say you want to onboard a new support employee. Focus on the elements of what a successful onboarding would look like for that employee. Create tasks to achieve those elements.


The ideas behind these thoughts come from Getting Things Done. If you download a to-do app never to return to it, I suggest giving the book a read.