Autism and empathy through a customer service perspective

New Zealand and Australia have recently seen a big investigation into the conduct and culture of the area I work in (insurance and banking). How companies deal with customers, especially those in vulnerable situations, is under increased scrutiny and as a result a number of companies including the one I work for are rethinking their processes including how they train, empower, and incentivise front line (eg call centre) staff. This is generally a good thing for customers, but a recent training session around empathy in difficult situations also got me thinking about both the challenges and the advantages those of us on the spectrum have in a customer service context.

Autism and empathy is a pretty contentious topic with a big misconception that autism equates to or at least inevitably causes a significant lack of empathy. This is often tied in with the irritating extreme male brain theory, which seems to insult both autistic people and males in equal measure (honestly it seems like a male researcher basing a theory on men being biologically bad at emotions and caring about others is saying more about himself than anything).

More nuanced views on the topic point out that there are different types and mechanisms of empathy, and even if autistic people do have difficulties with some of the specific ways neurotypical people generally show empathy, this doesn’t translate to a lack of it altogether. Other research posits that many of the empathy-related difficulties perceived as being part of autism are actually related to a distinct but often comorbid condition, alexithymia – difficulty recognising emotions. However even when people did have both autism and alexithymia, they still showed distress at other people’s pain and demonstrated prosocial behaviour. I’m nowhere near enough of an expert to try to give a definitive answer to the topic, but I am definitely coming from the perspective, increasingly supported by both researchers and autistic people themselves, that autistic people definitely feel empathy and care about other people, even if they don’t show it in exactly the same ways.

In discussing how we might interact with customers dealing with recently deceased family members, the person taking the session divided empathetic action into two facets (once again probably not fitting with the latest scientific understandings of empathy but pretty helpful in this context): what empathy sounds like in a customer service setting and how it is shown. 

How empathy “sounds” was definitely the one I have trouble with. Nailing the right tone and pace, sounding like you care without being fake, knowing what to say to a stranger that’s in an awful situation – these are all things I can struggle with. As much as I do feel for the person in these situations, I just never know what to say. 

We then discussed how empathy “looks” in our call centre context, and this was a different story. Empathy could be shown by getting everything the caller needed done, and using your expertise to anticipate their needs. It was things like making sure updates were made across the board, so someone didn’t get a document a month later with their dead family member still listed in some forgotten section. Details like this are things I am really good at catching, and trying to make the process as easy as I can – in an administrative way, at least – is how I have focused on trying to help customers in the past. Not always in a negative context either – catching that someone’s contents insurance policy is set up to send notifications to their partner when they’ve just secretly added an engagement ring is pretty important in making sure a special moment isn’t ruined in the most banal possible way. 

Of course, both these types of empathy are important, and I still do what I can to try and “sound” appropriate (often by utilising a different set of scripting; “take care” rather than “enjoy your afternoon”). But I figure so long as I can avoid being completely insulting, showing empathy by efficiency and anticipating their needs is an important skill too – after all they’re not calling up for counselling, they’re calling up to get stuff sorted, and it’s my role to make this as painless as possible. 

Going forward I think I will just focus on sounding clear and competent – not stumbling over my words even if I don’t know exactly how I should be speaking – and getting everything done. I have colleagues who seem to know exactly how to sound lovely and empathetic, and that’s truly a great skill, but it’s not one I’m going to develop overnight, and in the meantime it feels worse to sound awkward or stumble over my words because I’m trying to act out someone I’m not. 

It was just a little thing, but this workshop on empathy in the call centre did help me feel that my specific set of skills could also be important in making a difficult situation easier for someone, and that action and efficiency is itself a way itself to show you care. It also got me thinking about why autistic people are perceived as not being empathetic. I really feel for the people I talk to, but if we were just being judged on how well we give verbal condolences, it probably wouldn’t look like it.  But I do make every effort to help my customers out, and I’m glad my work can recognise the value of that as well. 

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