In customer service interactions, empathy is paramount to achieving positive outcomes. However, this kind of compassion shouldn’t just be reserved for the customers your team helps — a genuinely successful support team must also foster a culture of empathy and inclusivity internally. As a workforce manager, it’s your job to make this happen.
While the old support industry model prioritized the customer experience above all else, times have changed. Providing your team with a safe, empathetic, and inclusive environment that caters to their unique needs is vital. This isn’t to say providing quality service experiences is any less important, but creating an inclusive workplace will drive positive outcomes for agents and customers alike.
We’re deeply proud of the culture of empathy we’ve created here on the Assembled support team. So, we’ve tapped Talal Naboulsi, who leads the mighty support team here at Assembled, for insight into building a psychologically safe and inclusive support team. First, let’s take a brief look at how prioritizing empathy and inclusion can benefit your support department
The benefits of a psychologically safe support environment
Ensuring your agents feel safe and included should be high on your list of priorities since it’s the moral way to run a support team, but doing so can also provide a host of tangible benefits.
For starters, it’s an expectation for many employees. A recent report from McKinsey & Company found that 89% of workers believe a psychologically safe workplace is essential for per. If you want to avoid the heavy costs associated with high turnover, it’s important to create safe and inclusive working conditions.
Practicing empathy won’t just make for happier agents (who will also make happier customers). It will also create better, more productive customer support teams. An exhaustive two-year study from Google found that psychological safety was the number one trait shared by all of its top-performing teams. It’s no surprise that a team’s perceived safety and inclusivity are directly correlated with employee engagement.
We don’t need to tell you about the importance of hiring top talent. After all, your support team is only as good as the agents on it. According to SHRM, 92% of workers will look specifically for companies that demonstrate empathy when applying for jobs. In today’s employee-driven job market, fostering a culture of kindness and compassion can mean the difference between acquiring top talent and watching it flock to your competitors.
“You can’t build a good support team without really good support people,” Talal says. “If you don't build healthy environments from the beginning, you're absolutely going to suffer down the road.”
With that in mind, here are some practices to follow as you build that empathetic culture on your team (or improve the one you’ve already created).
How to build a culture of inclusivity and empathy in customer service
1. Understand your support agents
Your agents are real people, not numbers on a screen. Your leadership and team culture must reflect that. Here’s how to do it.
Ask all of your agents key questions
Find out who your support agents are, and make sure they feel comfortable bringing their authentic selves into your support center. Start at a basic level — try to schedule a short one-on-one with each of your agents to discover their likes and dislikes, learn what they expect from you, and take steps to make sure they feel included.
One straightforward but meaningful way to do this is to ask what their pronouns are and have them display these pronouns in places like their email signature, Slack profile, or LinkedIn page. Showing that you take pronouns seriously is a clear sign you’re committed to empathy and inclusivity. Beyond that, it can signal to your trans or non-binary agents that they belong and that your team is a safe place for them to be themselves.
Learn how your agents work best
Everyone works in different ways. Take some time to find out how each of your agents likes to work and when they feel most comfortable or productive taking customer queries. Customizing their schedules and giving them flexible work arrangements demonstrates empathetic leadership and shows you’re working to include them in your planning process.
“If you know more about how your agents like to work, you’ll have more pieces to create the puzzle that is making sure the right people are there to serve customers at the right time,” Talal explains. “They’ll also be in a good mental space and be really happy about being there if you can cater to their preferred schedule.”
At Assembled, we work to let our service agents define when they work best and what their schedule should look like. We add those preferences into our scheduling tool to create custom schedules that are based directly on their feedback.
Understand your agents’ motivations
What motivates the members of your support team? Is it the prospect of career advancement? An outstanding work/life balance? Simply helping people solve their problems? Understanding and catering to your agents’ motivations and professional desires is a huge part of creating an empathetic culture.
Sometimes opening up about motivations and desires can be difficult, so it’s best to lead by example. Tell your agents what motivates you, how you work best, and your professional aspirations. Putting yourself out there first will show your agents you’re committed to understanding them and will make them feel more comfortable sharing their own motivations and professional wants.
Effectively motivating your agents will also do wonders for their engagement, so understanding what they hope to achieve and get out of their job is an absolute win-win.
2. Embrace and act on agent feedback
No support team is perfect, so soliciting and acting on employee feedback is crucial to your team’s success. Doing so will help your agents understand that you really do care about what they think. This means they’ll be more likely to give additional feedback down the line, potentially identifying weaknesses or challenges that you would never have found yourself.
Collecting feedback is also a great way to boost retention. According to Achievers, 90% of employees say they are more likely to stay at a company that takes and acts on their ideas.
If you run a small support team, try to solicit feedback from your agents through short meetings and regular pulse checks. Ask questions like:
👋How are things going?
👍What do you like about working on this team?
🤔What would you like to change?
🗣Do you have any ideas about improving our culture or the way we work?
🤗Is there anything I can do to better support you?
If your agents don’t feel comfortable giving genuine feedback right away, try asking these questions anonymously. AllVoices found that 74% of workers are more inclined to provide honest feedback if it’s truly anonymous. Once your agents are more comfortable giving you their honest opinions, you can start directly soliciting feedback.
Receiving quality feedback on larger teams can be a little trickier, but it’s still totally doable (and totally worth it). Anonymous surveys are still a great option here, as is soliciting feedback from your direct reports. They can also gauge their team’s sentiment and report back to you.
Another option is setting up a Feedback Panel for your support department. Task this panel with collecting feedback from their peers and presenting it to you or even company leadership. Creating an inclusion panel will provide two main benefits: 1) you’ll get actionable recommendations from your team without sacrificing too much of your valuable time, and 2) it’s a highly visible way to show you’re dedicated to inclusivity and taking feedback seriously.
Make sure your panel doesn't become a popularity contest, though. You can pick randomly among willing agents or solicit volunteers, but be sure you’re picking panel members who represent the diversity of your team — not just the loudest voices in the room.
3. Promote openness and good communication
It’s hard to feel included if you don’t know where to find the resources you need to do your job. Creating an open, transparent environment with excellent communication practices can go a long way toward building a culture of empathy and inclusivity. Here are a few ways to do just that:
- Communicate thoughtfully: According to a study by Dynamic Signal, 70% of employees say they’ve felt overwhelmed at work because of bad communication methods and fragmented information. To avoid unnecessarily stressing out your support agents, make sure you’re communicating clearly to everyone on your team.
Good communication will also drive agent engagement — Gallup found that workers with managers who regularly communicate with them are almost three times more engaged than workers who aren’t regularly communicated with.
Aside from having routine check-ins with your team, be sure to clearly explain new policies and leadership decisions so your agents will understand why they’re being asked to do something new. Consider sending out weekly or bi-weekly team updates with wins, challenges, policy updates, and other information you think your support agents could benefit from. If multiple agents come to you with similar questions, send out a team-wide Slack message or email addressing those questions—chances are they are even more people wondering about those same topics.
- Leverage tools and processes that promote transparency: Fragmented information can make employees feel overwhelmed and helpless, especially in a support environment. Your agents need quick, convenient access to information to assist customers happily and efficiently.
One way to do this is to create a unified knowledge base where all your product and service information lives. And give your agents access to as much information as possible. Allowing your agents to access each other’s service notes and other pertinent information will boost productivity and demonstrate to your agents that you trust them and that they belong on the team.
- Promote inter-departmental cooperation: Your support team is a crucial part of your organization, so don’t silo your support agents. Make sure they’re interfacing with other parts of your organization. This both helps your agents stay informed and demonstrates they’re valuable players who contribute to your organization.
“You have to make sure people are involved in other teams because otherwise, they have very little reason to talk to them,” Talal explains.
If you’re having trouble finding ways for your agents to meet and communicate with members of other teams, talk to other department heads about creating different task forces to tackle specific challenges within your organization.
Letting your agents collaborate and solve company-wide problems is a great way to foster inclusivity and a sense of belonging since they’ll be able to meet and form relationships with other members of your organization. Plus, seeing how other departments function is also essential to your team’s professional development, further boosting the culture of empathy and inclusivity you’re building on your support team.
4. Establish empathetic values and inclusive policies
Your culture needs a solid foundation on which to rest. Take some time to think through the empathetic and inclusive values you want to promote and codify them clearly in writing for your team to reference. At a baseline, your values should include (but not be limited to):
- Clear communication
Other values we use on the Assembled support team that you may want to consider incorporating into your team include:
- Ownership (of both successes and failures)
- A bias toward helping
- Assuming positive intent
- Having a growth mindset
Once you’ve established a set of guiding principles for your support team or call center, clearly document them and present them to your team. Explain why you picked each value, give your team examples of what that value means to you, and describe how to best live these values at work.
You’ll also want to provide a written Diversity and Inclusion policy if you don’t already have one. This policy is crucial to helping your agents understand how you and your organization are protecting their rights and promoting inclusion, so make sure you clearly define and communicate these policies to your agents as soon as they join your team.
At a minimum, lay out the protections your agents have, such as those that prevent race, gender, or age discrimination. Your inclusion policy can also include points referencing any other policies you decide on, such as flexible work arrangements, workplace accessibility initiatives, professional development opportunities, or interdepartmental teamwork.
SHRM has a great starter template you can customize and expand to fit your needs if you want a jumping-off point for creating this policies document. Since most policies regarding diversity and inclusion in customer service will match those of other departments, this template should help you cover the basics.
5. Practice empathetic leadership
According to a recent SHRM survey, 72% of employees cite “respectful treatment of all employees at all levels” as the most significant factor when considering their job satisfaction. Here are a few ways to display empathetic leadership in your call center or support team.
- Lead with vulnerability and humanize yourself: Nobody’s perfect. If you demonstrate to your agents that it’s OK to be vulnerable, they’ll have a much easier time opening up and asking for help when and if they need it. Acknowledge your shortcomings and be open about your hopes and motivations.
It’s also essential to make sure your agents see you as a real person, not an order-issuing monolith. Make yourself relatable to your agents by taking an interest in their personal lives (if they feel comfortable sharing). Be available to your agents if they seek your help or advice.
Humanizing yourself is especially important as your company grows, but be careful not to patronize your agents. No one wants a manager that pretends to care or tries to relate to their agents by complaining about what’s wrong with their new yacht 🙄.
- Recognize agent success: According to OfficeTeam, 66% of employees say lack of appreciation could drive them to leave their jobs. Agent recognition is a powerful retention tool and an important part of an empathetic support team culture. Beyond that, celebrating individual or team wins is a great way to make your agents feel valued and included.
- Live your values: “Any value you talk about to your team, you really have to exemplify it, ” Talal advises, which sums it up pretty well. Leading by example is always a leadership best practice, especially when it comes to empathy and inclusion.
- Demonstrate your expertise: Let’s be honest — there’s a reason you’re a workforce manager. You know how to provide excellent support, and you should make sure your team knows that.
“If a customer asks a question and you can't exemplify what a good support experience is, I personally would have a hard time following you,” Talal says. In order to build and maintain a stellar culture of inclusion, you’ll need your agents to respect your leadership so they’ll follow your guidance. Demonstrating you can “walk the walk” by providing great support goes a long way in earning that respect.
Support your support agents
Supporting your team should be your top priority as a workforce manager. Creating a diverse culture of empathy and inclusivity is key to making your agents feel safe, heard, and empowered.
If you’re looking for more ways to make your agents’ lives easier and their working hours smoother, consider how you can create flexible work arrangements and provide professional development opportunities for your team.