Customer Service

How retailers can teach empathy for de-escalation

By Derek Belch, Founder & CEO

Photograph of a busy shopping mall

This post was originally featured on Total Retail on October 12, 2021. Read the original article here.

Retailers and consumers alike had just started to feel hopeful about a post-pandemic future a mere few weeks ago. However, with the COVID-19 Delta variant quickly becoming a concern, retailers across the country have made the move to reinstate mask mandates indoors. 

Unsurprisingly, this latest round of mask mandates has come with mounting tensions. Many store associates have found themselves in very uncomfortable, and sometimes violent encounters with disgruntled customers, with face masks continuing to pose a controversial debate.

As such, with the onus sitting squarely on the shoulders of front-line employees to outline and enforce these mask mandates, many businesses are looking at proactive measures to help train and prepare workers for potentially highly-charged customer encounters. 

Preparing our people with empathy training

During these challenging times, customer-facing employees will be looking for guidance on best practices, and reassurance as to how to handle potentially tense situations with customers. Signals must come from the top, emphasizing the importance of being confident and prepared with the skills needed to de-escalate stressful interactions. It often comes down to the ability to show empathy to those experiencing stress or anxiety. However, this typically doesn’t come naturally and requires proper training. 

This is why empathy training is the key for giving front-line associates the tools to prepare for what they are likely to face, such as what Walmart is doing with its beKIND program meant for teaching and measuring empathy in customer service. Customer-facing employees can benefit immensely by being able to embody the feelings of an anxious guest or customer. Through realistic, immersive training modalities, learners can better understand a customer’s point of view, whether or not they agree, in order to successfully de-escalate a situation.

What is the root cause of their response, is it fear or anger?

What will make the customer feel understood?

Proper training can effectively drive intended behaviors, equipping employees with the skills needed to recognize an escalating situation, and base their response in a way that provides the safest, least stressful environment to best serve their customers. 

See why Walmart’s Be Kind VR program was so successful

Prioritize training with real-world situations

Once businesses realize and prioritize the importance of empathy training, the question becomes how to most effectively do it. Simply explaining or role-playing possible customer interactions have not proven to be enough to truly prepare employees for these challenging situations. It’s imperative to practice in realistic environments to simulate behaviors that could occur on the job, ranging from tense conversations to potentially violent situations.

There are two steps employers can take in implementing effective practice methods for adequate training and preparation: conducting immersive practice in realistic environments, and providing learners with the opportunity for assessment and feedback to improve performance.

Rather than handing employees pre-written scripts to practice, a more proven approach is to provide learners with immersive experiences based on real-world situations that allow the mental ‘transportation’ to simulate realistic scenarios that require real-time decision making in a risk-free environment. This allows the learner to get an accurate representation of what may actually happen on the job, and the ability to practice intended behaviors.

Fast-paced, realistic training experiences actively promote critical thinking, encourage a sense of urgency to resolve, and can improve more accurate judgement calls in difficult situations. 

In addition, learners should receive immediate performance feedback on their practice scenarios, and be allotted the opportunity to self-assess.

Immersive Learning allows for both, giving managers the ability to gauge proficiency and real-time behavior change, while learners can use assessment tools to direct further practice and preparedness. Feedback on scenarios in the form of immediate corrections or suggested alternative approaches will also allow learners to quickly improve their critical thinking skills, and give them adequate reflection time to consider other methods of analyzing customer interactions, such as reading non-verbal cues. 

Implement a customer-first approach

Last, but certainly not least, implementing a customer-first approach will allow employees to think like a customer, and remain empathetic to challenging situations, especially when having the opportunity to ‘walk in someone else’s shoes’ during their training sessions.

A customer-first approach must be built into the company culture and reflected in training methodologies to ensure that consistent standards are met, as it will affect everything from hiring, onboarding, and upskilling, to day-to-day business activities. Therefore, every decision that is made, both by leadership and customer-facing employees, will come from the same core value of placing the customer first. 

To close, we are all facing continued challenges with this second round of mask mandates and ongoing uncertainty of the evolving pandemic. However, if retailers are able to prioritize empathy as a core value, conduct real-world immersive training with customer-facing employees, and promote a customer-first culture, their employees and associates will be significantly better equipped to de-escalate difficult encounters.

Ultimately, with empathy-based immersive training as a foundation for your customer-facing employees, the outcome will achieve the ultimate goal – a more satisfied customer.

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