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hack empathy like an Apple Genius

How to Hack Customer Empathy Like an Apple Store Genius

Get closer than ever to your customers. So close that you tell them what they need well before they realize it themselves.
Steve Jobs

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.

The Power of 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.

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Recognize the Difference between Sympathy and Empathy

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:

  • How would I feel in this situation?
  • What would I want done about this situation?
  • What would I expect to happen?
  • What information or action could help me?
  • What could pleasantly surprise me?

Feel, Felt, Found

hack empathy like an apple genius

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:

  • Feel: You repeat the customer’s concern, stating that you know how they feel.
  • Felt: You present a situation in which you felt similarly.
  • Found: You explain how your perspective has been changed and why.

The example in the manual is:

This Mac is just too expensive.
I can see how you’d feel this way. I felt the price was a little high, but I found it’s a real value because of all the built-in software and capabilities.

Here are some more examples of empathy exercises to get you thinking:

I think your shipping options are too limited.
I can see how you’d feel that way. I felt that we should offer more options originally, but we have found that partnering with the X shipping company ensures that our fragile products are not destroyed.
I hate that I can’t call you up on the phone.
I can see how you’d feel that way. I felt that it was best to talk to customers on the phone too, until I found that I could resolve issues twice as fast via live chat.

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.

Study Nonverbal Gestures and Text-based Subtext

hack empathy like an apple genius

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:

  1. Frustration
    • Tightly clenched hands
    • Short breaths
    • Pointing index finger
  2. Boredom
    • Drumming on table
    • Blank stare
  3. Acceptance
    • Hand to chest
    • Touching
    • Moving in closer

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:

  1. Acceptance
    • Internet slang
    • Emoticons
  2. Frustration
    • Short answers
    • Expletives
    • Caps lock*
      *It’s important to note that some people do not realize that this is a sign of yelling.

Cut Out Negative Speak

hack empathy like an apple genius

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:

  • Delayed shipment
  • Out of stock
  • Problem with your order

Instead, try saying:

  • Impending delivery
  • Reorder
  • Unexpected issue


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?”

Download now: 50 Customer Service Training Activities for Live Chat and Telephone Teams

Download now: 50 Customer Service Training Activities for Live Chat and Telephone Teams

Empathy can help you build customer satisfaction and loyalty. This eBook contains quick and easy empathy training activities. Your team can link activities to learning and apply the learning to the workplace.

Download Now
Carla Jerez

About Carla Jerez

Carla Jerez is a senior content writer at Comm100. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Florida State University and has years' experience writing for the SaaS industry. When she’s not writing, she’s reading, traveling, or playing around on Photoshop. Connect with her on LinkedIn.