Article | 7 min read

Empathy and humanistic design are customer service game changers

By Rebecca Huval

Last updated July 29, 2021

Airports are a petri dish for the worst customer service blunders. After waiting for an hour in security, nearly missing your flight and forgoing lunch in the terminal, you finally board your plane. Breathing a sigh of relief, you think you’ve gone through all the hoops and been through all the hassle. Not so fast. The flight attendant makes you check your luggage, even though it contains a precious laptop — and you have a flight connection tighter than the angry lump in your throat.

You might think you’re livid simply because there wasn’t space in the overhead storage. But you’d be slightly off.

The comfort of knowing

In a collaborative study between JetBlue and Stanford University’s d.school, Institute of Design, students and researchers interviewed passengers — following them from self-service check-in all the way to their flights. They asked open-ended questions and received surprising responses, according to Perry Klebahn, the Director of Executive Education at the d.school. The passengers interviewed were happy when there was space for their bag on the plane, of course. But they were also satisfied with their experience when they knew beforehand that they would have to check in their luggage. The unsatisfied customers were those who didn’t know ahead of time whether there was space for their stuff. “It’s really the uncomfortableness of not knowing”, Klebahn says.

That’s the difference between empathic customer service in theory and in practice — A flight attendant might sympathise with a passenger and assume that they’re upset by the lack of space in the overhead compartment. They may even offhandedly ask the passenger about how they’re feeling. But a customer experience with human-centred design at its core wouldn’t stop at just one person asking a question. It would have purposeful and open-ended questions asked every step of the way. It would use that data to proactively improve the passenger’s journey, solving the issue at its root. After all, customer service should be about more than dealing with angry people. It should prevent them from becoming angry in the first place.

Customer service should be about more than dealing with angry people. It should prevent them from becoming angry in the first place.

“Customer service is an easy place to apply design thinking”, Klebahn says. “You can aggregate customer feedback really quickly. Ask some open-ended questions and explore, rather than simply responding to a request.”

The customer service game changers

Here are Klebahn’s simple tips to get started with the game changers of customer service — empathy and humanistic design:

  • “Empower frontline folks to ask ‘Why?’ when they talk to customers.” In the rush of daily life and the constant flood of customer requests, it might seem silly to sit down and have a deep conversation with a screaming caller. But it will pay off if you discover that their problem is something you can resolve for every customer going forward.
  • Senior leaders should spend a day working as a customer service rep. “They can build rapport and stop thinking of the customer as a number or market data”, he says. As a former leader at Timbuk2 and Patagonia, Klebahn used to put this into practice himself. “It was incredibly humbling and provided incredible focus on the big issues.”
  • Ask all sorts of big questions. Don’t only ask why the dress didn’t fit the customer — ask how they would want it to fit, in an ideal world. Ask what activities they would like to do while wearing that jumpsuit. You might be surprised by what you learn about customers when you give them the forum to really talk.
  • Set up a systematic way for company leaders and other departments to gather and review customer service surveys. “Our customers can show us so much more about what’s going in the world if we just listen”, Klebahn says. “The challenge is: how do we make sure customer service people are heard in the company and the information goes somewhere?”

The magic of empathetic modelling

Human-centred design can not only improve product development and consumer pathways, it can optimise the way customer service reps manage flare-ups when they do happen. That’s why Joyce Thomas — an Industrial Design Professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana — advocates for empathic modelling.

Human-centred design can not only improve product development and consumer pathways, it can optimise the way customer service reps manage flare-ups when they do happen.

“Whenever you’re at the height of a confrontation, it’s hard to step back, pull yourself out of it and see what it is you can learn from it”, Thomas says. “That’s why empathic modelling is so important. It helps you develop a muscle memory of what that experience is like.”

The magic ingredient is fairly simple: role play. Force yourself to step outside of your own perspective by literally acting like someone else. Thomas asks her students and business consultees to put on sunglasses smothered with Vaseline — further obstructed with paper blinders attached to the sides. “I call them empathy goggles”, Thomas says. “Suddenly, you are in someone else’s shoes completely. If you’re a business person, it is a method that makes you realise: you think you know where everything is, but you can’t see everything.”

Thomas offers some empathic modelling takeaways for customer service reps:

  • Follow each step it takes for a customer to reach you. Customer service reps should intimately understand how the phone tree or interface works. How many buttons does an angry customer have to press before they finally get to you? Don’t just know the answer, but do it yourself, repeatedly. “They need to have an end user’s perspective so they can see what they’re feeling and what emotions they went through in that timeframe”, Thomas says.
  • Simulate your customers’ problems. If you often get callers with the same issue — like breaking the product when they open the awkward packaging — try mimicking the same issue. Physically open the package until it malfunctions. Put yourself in the emotional mind space of someone who is so excited to try out a new toy, only to feel heartbroken and a bit foolish and clumsy. Imagine their embarrassment and disappointment. Now, try following your company’s phone tree through to customer service.
  • Put yourself in the emotional mind space of someone who is so excited to try out a new toy, only to feel heartbroken and a bit foolish and clumsy.

  • If you can’t set up a physical simulation, try simple storytelling. Give your customer service team a list of personal backstories for callers. For example, imagine that the caller just found out that a loved one was in a car accident. A few hours later, they’re calling you. Although empathic modelling is usually about physically experiencing someone else’s situation, you won’t be able to simulate some of your callers’ deeper issues without a bit of imagination.

Skepticism and surprise

For anyone skeptical of these goofy exercises, you aren’t alone. When Thomas put her empathy goggles on a crowd of doctors at a conference in Malaysia, she was nervous that they might not learn much. Her audience was extremely educated, tough and accustomed to empathising with their patients. But just before the doctors started walking with limited vision, Thomas was surprised, “It was really interesting to hear them say ‘I’m really nervous about it, my stomach hurts’ or ‘I’m excited, but scared’.” They held hands with other doctors or walked with one arm on another physician’s shoulder.

“It caused them to want to connect with another person”, she recalled. “That’s the whole point of empathic modelling: you could be very blasé, thinking it’s going to be a piece of cake. Then, you might have unexpected journeys or frustrations.”

Ultimately, those surprises make for better business. “You begin to share that person’s angst and journey and view the situation more holistically”, she says. “You find solutions you can’t when you’re only invested in your own experience.”


Based in Sacramento, Rebecca Huval writes about design and the many ways it intersects with our world, including tech, food and culture. Her bylines have appeared in publications such as the Awl, GOOD and Communication Arts, where she served as Managing Editor. Find her on Twitter: @bhuval