Why sympathy kills customer retention.

  Amanda   |   25th March 2021 - 5 min read

For Fun | Insurance | Knowledge Centre | SchemeServe

We buy insurance hoping we won’t ever need to use it, right?

In fact, we hope never to even hear from our insurers. We don’t want them to even be on our radar.

Insurance is like the crash-mat that sits on the ground below the window-of-life. If the walls collapse, or the window explodes, or someone accidentally leaves it open with a roller-skate on the threshold … you know it’s there. You don’t want the crash-mat shouting up at you during lunch, or knocking on the door. You want it reliable, comfy, silent.

But, when that thing you hope never goes wrong, does go wrong, your relationship with your insurer quickly escalates from ‘Don’t talk to me!’ to ‘F***! I need you NOW.’ It becomes disaster recovery – it can save you.

This is why the conversation around sympathy and empathy is so important. One will build trust, the other could dismantle it.

Insurance is business, yes. But it is unique in that unlike many other businesses, people will only get in contact when they are in a state of shock, feeling anxious or fearful. Insurer customer support, in this respect, is similar to a helpline – and any successful helpline will know communicating empathy (not sympathy) can be the difference between driving connection, or fueling disconnection.


So, what’s the difference between empathy and sympathy?

Sympathy is linked primarily with pity. You may understand someone has had a bad experience, and you feel sorry for them, but you don’t engage with their feelings or reflect them back. It FUELS disconnection. Responses such as;

“You poor thing.”

“You should do this… (and go on to give advice, rather than listening to the problem first).”

“I’m sorry that happened to you.”

Empathy, is your ability to put yourself in that person’s shoes. To imagine what it must have been like, and feel it with them, rather than keeping a distance. It FUELS connection. Empathy shows someone you understand their experience and you can relate to it. Responses such as;

“I know it’s frustrating to be kept waiting, thanks for understanding.”

“It’s completely understandable that you’re feeling angry right now.”

“I’m so sorry this has happened, it must be incredibly difficult.”


The problem with sympathy;

  • Sympathy within any relationship can often lead to ‘advice giving’ rather than genuine listening and understanding. A customer in crisis wants to feel understood and cared for, not preached at.
  • Sympathy is strongly linked to pity. Pity has the ability to make someone feel small, and insignificant. Empathy allows a customer to feel they have an ally.
  • Sympathy and ‘advice giving’ injects your own perspective, rather than listening to theirs. If you’re there to help, it’s not about you. Listen to understand, not to respond.

The success of empathy;

  • It leaves a customer feeling understood, and listened to because their feelings have been understood and reflected back. It reinstates a common humanity between people.
  • It creates trust. There’s a reason why empathy is essential for counselling practise. Listening to, and proving you have understood how a person feels enables trust to develop – vital for customer retention.
  • It helps the customer feel equal to you, rather than looked down upon or pitied. It fosters strength in a crisis, rather than dissolving it.

Being sympathetic towards a customer could mean they go away from their interaction with you feeling small, misunderstood and brushed aside.

Developing empathic skills not only builds trust, but creates meaningful and genuine connections which guarantees the customer will feel reassured, listened to and understood at a time they need it most of all.

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Manda Hinkin-Page

Manda has worked in a huge range of industries including theatre, higher education, charity fundraising and animal welfare. She has been a freelance copywriter for a number of years, and joins us as Marketing Manager. She has a First Class degree in Creative Writing, and has written everything from poetry to eBay buying guides.

She loves animals, swing music, psychology, cake, pesto, ballet and walking to the top of really big hills.

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