Client engagement in libraries: from empathy to compassion

Client engagement in libraries: from empathy to compassion

In my ALIA Queensland Mini Conference presentation last year, I briefly spoke about importance of empathy and compassion in cultivating inclusive library services. I want to explore this topic further and discuss how empathy and compassion can transform client engagement in libraries.

A lot of people think great customer service is about fixing things, solving problems and giving advice. I don’t think that’s entirely true. The real goal of customer service is to provide an experience that people associate and connect with. The greatest customer service experiences I’ve ever received have been in hospitals. Although hospital staff could rarely fix me or solve my medical issues, they were able to make me feel supported, understood and validated – and that made all the difference to my experience as a patient. The customer service I now provide as a librarian is inspired by my experiences in various hospitals, and is based on three elements: sympathy, empathy and compassion.

Sympathy (I see your pain/issue/problem)

Although sympathy is not usually seen as being particularly helpful or sincere in client engagement, it’s the gateway to compassionate customer service. Sympathy is the recognition that a client is upset about something. Sympathy could be summed up as “I see you,” or “I see the issue,” or “I understand your pain.” Sympathy is feeling condolence and agreement but without a personal connection. Sympathy in customer service is often seen as – “I’m so sorry about this issue but I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do to help.” Sympathy shows you acknowledge, recognise, understand or pity the person. It is the awareness of suffering, without the intention of helping, supporting or alleviating the issue. Although being sympathetic is an integral staring point, we need to move towards being empathetic and compassionate when engaging with our clients.

Empathy (I feel/understand your pain/issue/problem)

Empathy is the ability to understand, feel and share the emotions of another. It is the act of putting yourself in others’ shoes and seeing an experience from their point of view. Empathy in customer service might look like – “I understand. I would feel the same in your situation, but we will sort this out for you,” or “I absolutely agree. Let’s work together to fix this.” It’s important to note that being empathetic to a client’s situation doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. What you do need is the ability to see their point of view – even if it differs from your own. Each person is different and considering their unique situation is important. When engaging with a client, ask yourself:

  • Why is this issue so important to this person?
  • What made them feel the way they do?
  • How has this issue caused hardship for this person?
  • Who is this person in their day-to-day life? What motivates them?
  • How would I feel if this were happening to me?

When you can relate to your client on some level, you start to build common ground and genuine empathy and compassion can develop from there.

Compassion (I am willing to relieve your pain/or resolve your issue/problem)

Compassion takes empathy and sympathy a step further. When you are compassionate, you feel the pain of another (i.e. empathy) and you recognise and acknowledge the person’s issue (i.e. sympathy), and then you do your best to help the person and their situation (i.e. compassion). Compassion is empathy in action. It is the willingness to alleviate someone’s pain or assist them through a difficult situation. Although compassion is often linked to grand acts of kindness, the reality is, it can be as simple as listening and being present with someone during a difficult moment.

Putting it all together

Here are some tips on how we can cultivate empathy and compassion when engaging with our clients.

  • Think about the language you use. Language is one of the most underrated but one of the most powerful enablers of engagement. Instead of saying, “That must be frustrating,” (i.e. sympathy), try saying, “I understand how frustrating that is,” (i.e. empathy). Being more personal is also a great way of establishing connection with a client. Instead of saying “The team will resolve this issue soon,” try saying “I am working with the team to solve this issue soon.” Also, always opt for positive language. For example, instead of saying “Please don’t hesitate to contact me,” say “Please feel free to contact me.”The tiny ways you express empathy through your language will go a long way in making a client feel valued.
  • Reflect their tone. Replying to a client’s casual email with a formal templated reply is the worst thing you can do. Instead, respond to the customer’s tone. You don’t have to give up your own voice or your company’s communication style in the process, but you have to ensure the tone you’re using is appropriate for the individual you’re serving. Remember: clients are your kings, but context is your kingdom
  • Take accountability. When the client is right and you or your company have made a mistake, go ahead and say, “You’re right. We messed up.” People will respect you for taking accountability.
  • Look for commonality. For example, let’s just say you were helping a client with a troubleshooting issue and you noticed that their desktop screensaver is of your favourite band – why not bring it up in a conversation? Building a bond with a client, even over a tiny thing, can generate greater understanding and empathy.
  • Actively listen. Let your clients talk and actively listen to what they’re saying. Don’t jump to conclusions. Don’t offer solutions before they can finish telling you about the problem. Let them finish talking and respond with similar words they’ve used. Sometimes people want and need to vent. Half of the time, their issue will be solved once they feel heard and understood. And, if someone tells you something that is inconsistent or different to your own experience, rather than try to justify it, just listen. Remember that another person’s experience or perception is real to them. Although this tip sounds a little simplistic, it is extremely important. Remember: the real work of inclusion and engagement is to listen and to make others feel heard and validated.
  • Include them as part of the solution. There are times in client engagement when you’ll face difficult and sometimes unsolvable situations. In such cases, include the client as part of the process and the solution. Ask them what their desired outcome is, what they think the right solution is, and how you can best assist them in achieving this. This will give the client a chance to put themselves in your shoes, ultimately creating a two ways street of empathy.
  • Be aware of your biases. To cultivate empathy, you need to recognise your own biases. Every time you assume something about someone, without evidence to support your views, this creates an invisible barrier between you and the client. For example, assuming a client will not be tech-savvy because they’re a mature-aged person stems from bias. Learn to question your biases.

I truly believe that no matter what you do – what profession or position you’re in – compassion is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.

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