A few years back, the internet erupted when the people at Gizmodo got their hands on the copy of the Apple’s Genius Training Manual.
While the article was rife with criticism towards the iconic company’s training tactics, it’s worth noting that Apple is generally categorized into the upper echelon of excellence in customer service. People love going to the Apple store, and this is in spite of all the criticism the store received before its initial launch.
So what does the Apple Genius Training Manual reveal about their massive retail success? That they get one crucial thing right in customer service: empathy.
There is a section in the manual labeled “the power of empathy.” This isn’t at all surprising when you consider the principles that Apple was founded on.
One of the earliest investors of Apple, Mike Markkula, wrote about it in his “Apple Marketing Philosophy” which is a one-page memo that has served as the company’s fundamental doctrine for decades.
The first point on his manifesto is empathy. As Markkula wrote: “We will truly understand their needs better than any other company.” (Source: Steve Jobs, Simon & Schuster, 2011)
Understanding customer needs can help you build fantastic products and services. But how you communicate that empathy to a customer directly, as well as how you can perceive their more moment-to-moment needs, can help you build customer satisfaction and loyalty. Ultimately, having empathy creates deep bonds of trust between a company and a customer, and trust moves sales.
That’s where the Genius Manual comes in. In detailing how to be empathetic and practice it in stores, we can see how Apple designed an empathy-training curriculum.
The following wisdom from the Genius Training Manual will present a few actionable customer empathy hacks and empathy examples.
The first hack is to be able to train yourself to immediately recognize the difference between sympathy and empathy, as they’re easily confused feelings. If you don’t get them straight, you’ll risk creating an unequal, and potentially unhealthy dynamic between you and your customer.
For example, the manual states: “Do not apologize for the business [or] the technology.” It instead encourages trainees to focus on the customer’s feelings, encouraging them to instead say something like “I’m sorry you’re feeling frustrated,” or “too bad about your soda-spill accident.” If Apple were to allow its employees to apologize for the technology or the company, they risk putting themselves on unequal footing with their customer (which in turn, could cause the customer to lose faith in them and turn to a competitor).
The Apple Genius Training Manual explains that empathy is not “Sympathy, which is the ability to feel sorry for someone.”
Empathy is a mature and professional response to a customer’s issue; sympathy, on the other hand, is reactionary. Empathy allows you to rationally think through an issue and empowers you to imagine solutions.
This is why you should stop any line of sympathy and instead focus on empathy, as the Apple Genius Manual suggests.
Instead, put yourself in customer’s shoes. Immediately ask yourself the following to inspire empathy over sympathy:
This is a particularly useful hack for when a customer is being difficult and you are having some trouble empathizing.
If you’re struggling to put yourself in the customer’s shoes or need to respond more immediately, take this response template from the Apple Training Manual to help prompt empathy:
Feel, Felt, Found.
It’s a great way to put yourself in someone else’s mindset and then walk them through yours.
The basic concept is as follows:
The example in the manual is:
Here are some more examples of empathy exercises to get you thinking:
It may take a little creativity to use feel, felt, found (and you might not use the exact wording), but just remember: acknowledge the customer’s feeling, admit to feeling similarly, and explain how you learned this system works best.
People don’t always outright say how they feel, so how can you express or communicate empathy when you don’t have a clue how that person’s feeling? According to Apple, that’s when studying nonverbal gestures comes into play. The Genius Training Manual has a chart that explains Geniuses-in-training what unconscious movements made by customers may mean.
Customers’ unconscious movements include:
If you’re working with text, it can be a little harder to read people. Furthermore, different generations and people from different regions all use different forms of writing to express themselves. Still, it’s important to identify this in emails and live chat somehow.
Use the following to help identify certain text-based characteristics:
*It’s important to note that some people do not realize that this is a sign of yelling.
Apple reminds its Geniuses that it’s not enough to perceive the customer’s dilemma and express understanding. In a truly empathetic move, an Apple Genius is expected to redirect or maintain a customer’s mood through tone and positive language. The key is to avoid saying negative trigger words that may creative a bad association with your product.
This is empathizing with a twist, because sometimes straight empathy requires that you take on someone’s negativity feelings or energy. But negativity is bad for business. Instead, use positive language to express empathy, and guide the customer to a more agreeable state.
This requires that you understand how the customer feels, and then subtly guide them toward the product, service, or action that is right for their situation. This means avoiding certain words, which can trigger negativity or distrust in a brand. For example, Apple says to avoid: bug or crash, and instead say condition or unexpectedly quits. This is because though it’s completely normal for products to crash or get bugs, putting someone in that negative mind space with negative associations pulls them further away from the solution on an emotional level.
While Apple focuses on negative technology terms to ban, I’m sure you can think of plenty of words in your industry that rouse up negative feelings for customers.
For example, in ecommerce you might avoid terms like:
Instead, try saying:
For more general words and terms to say (and avoid saying), check out this blog post on positive customer service phrases.
Ultimately, your company should have its own training manual with its own rules. For both sales and customer service alike, a true focus on developing empathy will secure and perpetuate business. At the end of the day, every company is selling solutions to problems, and part of that requires a deep understanding of the challenges that sit before each customer.
So next time you face a particularly difficult customer or feel your empathy wearing thin, just ask yourself, “What would an Apple Genius do?”