Article | 7 min read

Tips for practicing customer empathy

Last updated June 23, 2016

Meet Aurash, Support Operations Manager on the Zendesk Global Customer Advocacy team. Over the years, Aurash has worked as both a Tier 1 Advocate and Customer Success Manager at Zendesk, and today focuses on how to efficiently scale support in a global organization. Though his current role is not customer-facing, Aurash is known among his peers for exhibiting great amounts of customer empathy.

As though to illustrate, we begin chatting and Aurash anticipates my first two questions, leading me to believe that he’s either highly empathic or psychic. When he also offers to lend a hand with some quick software troubleshooting, it’s easy to see why he’s earned his reputation. Here he shares a bit about how he practices empathy in difficult situations, and how anyone, in any role, can choose empathy on the job.

Aurash Pourmand

Name: Aurash Pourmand
Tenure at Zendesk: 3.5 years
Overall years in a support role: 8 years
Personal mantra: In regard to empathy: “Everyone’s doing the best they can with what they’ve got in the moment.”
Fun fact? I can say the alphabet backward. There’s a YouTube video.
When you’re not at work, where can you be found? I’m kind of a personal growth geek. I both take and lead workshops on the side. Most recently, I was assisting as a TA for a workshop about belief and identity change.
You mentioned music is a big part of your life. What’s the best place to see a concert in San Francisco? I like The Warfield. I remember being in high school waiting in line for a show at The Warfield and feeling like I loved San Francisco, but would never want to live here. Fast forward 10 years and I’m living in San Francisco and working across the street from The Warfield.


How do you practice empathy with customers? What’s an example of a time when you dealt with a difficult customer?
One example that comes to mind is a customer who kept calling support and would hang up when he reached someone he’d already spoken to. He had a lot going wrong, on many levels. When I talked to him, I realized that he just wanted to vent. The call lasted about an hour and I turned down the volume a little, so that I could modulate but still hear him. It was intense. Even though he was upset and in attack mode, I started taking notes while he yelled. I tried to focus on what exactly was happening: What are the facts here? And what is it that he wants?

At the end, I said, “Okay, I’m hearing that these are the things that happened, and what you’re wanting is this, this, and that.” Afterward, there was this shift. He said, “You’re so great,” and “You’re the only person I trust now.” So… I don’t know that I’d recommend this to all support agents around the world, because I realize we can’t do this for everyone all the time, but I think the takeaway is that it’s easy to say “don’t take things personally” but it’s another thing to actually not take things personally. One thing that helps me is trying to separate out the content of what the customer is saying from the energy they’re putting out there.

That’s a great distinction. It sounds like you’re working to actively listen.
Yeah. It’s less about removing yourself from the situation and more about trying to observe it before coming back in to connect with the customer. When there’s a lot coming at me, it’s helpful for me to try and slow it down, give myself a chance to reflect and then offer something. In my head, I think “Okay, I’m over here. I’m going to go over there and step into this person’s shoes,” and then ask myself, “What are they experiencing? Where are they? What do they know? What do they not know?” When you think about what they’re trying to do, and what they’ve experienced or what their expectations were, you can see how you would be frustrated in their situation, too.

And if that’s not working, if I’m feeling judgmental or just like I really don’t want to deal with it, I ask myself, “What’s my version? When’s a time or situation that I’ve felt that way, too?”

After I feel like I’ve gotten in touch with the customer’s feelings, I come back to myself and ask, “Okay, what information do I have that would be helpful here? What can I do that would help?” Then I’m better able to acknowledge the situation, their problem and desire, and can try to bridge that gap.

The main thing is to show that you genuinely care and want to help. You can say the equivalent of, “I hear you. Here’s what I’m getting, is that right? If so, cool. Here’s what we can offer.” Or, “I wish we could offer that. Here’s what we do have available,” and just be with their disappointment.

How does this process translate when you’re dealing with peers instead of customers?
It’s the same skill. Now I go and talk to different teams to find out what’s going on with them, to gather feedback about everyone’s experience, needs, and wants. Then I try and design a process that meets as many of those needs as possible. The process still requires empathy, for me to step back and ask, “What’s the problem I’m trying to solve? Who am I trying to solve it for? What’s going on in their day-to-day?” I’m still coming from that place of: “I hear you, I see you and I want to help you here.” And I’m still observing the situation before coming back in to connect.

Let’s talk about how advocates providing email or chat support can practice empathy. That can be harder, right?
I think it matters where you’re coming from. You can come from a place of “I really don’t want to deal with this person” or from a place of “I want to help wherever I can, with what’s available to offer here.”

Your word choices and tone sound different when you’re coming from a place of genuinely wanting to help. Your actual energy is important, too, because if you’re saying the right words but not actually feeling it, the customer can feel the disconnect. This matters more when it’s a difficult situation. The rest of the time, people are usually just looking for information.

I think that people who are really good at empathy are able to choose to be empathic, especially when they have a disagreement or when they’re frustrated. It’s easy to be empathetic when everything’s going the way you expect.

How can advocates avoid empathy fatigue?
Definitely take a break. Different things help different people. Sometimes I go for a quick walk, or crack a joke with a co-worker, or get a reality check, like, “I’m about to send this thing… would you tweak it in any way?” If your co-worker’s not in the same situation right now, they’re more of an observer and may be able to offer useful perspective.

Management also has a big influence. If something’s not working, will management work on improving the process and environment? Advocates relax more when they’re feeling supported.

Zendesk advocates are front and center with our customers and our product. This series highlights the people behind the tickets and their perspective on what makes great customer service.

See past posts from:
Abel Martin, on building great internal partnerships
Arthur Mori, on what everyone should know about Tier 1 support
Benjamin Towne, on constructive criticism and mentoring advocates
Rodney Lewis, on setting up an internal shadowing program
Sarah Kay, on her move from advocate to data analyst
Ramona Lopez, on rolling out an advocate recognition program