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Is empathy good or bad?

Should you apologize when a person has a problem with their computer?

This really depends on your existing credibility with that person. If they know you, then they will not be likely to blame you or associate you with the problem. But if they do not know you or trust your ability, they may actually connect you with the problem, regardless of the validity. Of course it’s natural to want to say “I’m sorry you lost all your data” – but it could easily put you into a bad light if you segued into one of the following statements:

  • “if you did what you’re supposed to, this shouldn’t have happened”

  • “if you backed your data up, this could have been avoided”

  • “computers don’t just delete data on their own”

  • “this is user error”

Even statements you might consider milder can be infuriating:

  • “this happens to everyone”

  • “you’re lucky, I know someone who…”

  • “this rarely happens”

  • “this was a freak occurence, there was nothing you could have done”

  • “everyone on your team lost data, not just you”

There’s a world of difference between “I’m sorry this happened” and “I’m sorry this happened to you” – the latter option is not ideal as it separates you and puts the customer alone in the victim’s area. But the alternative isn’t great either, as it may passively imply that you are connected with it.

If you take empathy home with you and feel bad about what happened to your client, it can affect your stress, health, work enjoyment, and family. If you don’t take it home, your bedside manner could be considered insensitive. Avoid the extremes. A simple “it’s not my fault” mantra can help. If they had backup, then losing their hard drive wouldn’t have been so catastrophic. Should you have pushed harder for backup? Yes. Did you cover yourself with a note to them reminding them of the risk?

Power tip: covering yourself early from blame actually ends up protecting your customer as well.

So, what to say when your client is impacted? “I’m sorry this happened – I’d like to take a few minutes with you so we can help you avoid this from recurring. Can we discuss it while it’s fresh in your mind?”

Rarely will your customers understand the risks as well as you do. That’s bad for them, but provides you an opportunity to help, and a career. Educating them after they have ignored the risks is uncomfortable, but underscores the need to have the risk discussion early, and often.


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