Multi-Faith and Belief Chaplaincy, For All Faiths and None

The Problem of Corporate Empathy

MindLetter post written by Dr Kitty Wheater

Dear all,


A change of tone, this week, while I wrestle with a thorny issue...


The Problem of Corporate Empathy 

It first happened to me when Virgin Media shut down the WiFi. Two days on, with no little black symbol in sight, and my phone data rapidly running out, I took to WhatsApp to ask (plead. Beg.) for a prognosis on the ‘technical difficulties’ that were assailing every Virgin customer in my street. ‘We’re really sorry that you are unhappy with our services,’ said the bot. Many attempts later, I finally got through to a human. The human assured me the network would be back by 1pm. ‘Please rest assured, this won’t happen again in future.’ 

The network wasn’t back by 1pm. I went back to WhatsApp, and got through to another human. This one was so emollient, so thoughtful, so very uncorporate in response: ‘I get where you are coming from as I was working from home for a few months and I know how much of a pain it is when the broadband connection plays up. I understand that time is of great essence and especially during these tough times.’ She advised me to turn my router off and on again. I advised her that it wasn’t the router, it was the network. She, then, was ‘so sorry that you’ve had to deal with this problem. Also I’m sad to hear that you had a negative experience. I understand how you’re feeling right now, and I’m very sorry about it…I can see how this would be frustrating.’ She had no more updates for me. But she was, at least, so sorry. (VERY sorry.) 

Later, still WiFi-less, I went back to them – to receive another assurance that it would be back by the morning. It wasn’t. Eventually, after contacting the helpline twice more, I gave up asking and bought more phone data. I didn’t get my WiFi back for another four days. 

This story is familiar. Another day, another messy service provider; another business whose numbers have been curtailed by Covid; another round of unacknowledged emails querying a date or payment or detail; another package without a returns label, because the retail industry now outsources such bureaucracy to customers; another phone call, ringing into the void. I can never cross anything off my to-do list, because I must now replace it with a reminder to chase what I just crossed off. ‘Things aren’t working,’ say friends.  

And in the midst of things not working, there is a strange new phenomenon: corporate empathy. Businesses are so sorry. Anonymous call handlers understand my frustration, and tell me snippets of their own. It’s kindly; it’s reassuring; it’s humanising. The problem is - reluctantly - I don’t buy it.  

Why? Because it’s happened too many times, on too many digichat customer service interfaces. I can smell the corporate training, picture the Zoom slideshow with suggested phrases; when Marks and Spencer tell me they really understand how I feel, I can see the ‘how to manage customers’ backlighting. It’s worse than that: I can see the cost-saving strategies and the failures of communication. I imagine how they calculated just how much these would inconvenience or upset us, and then exactly what and how much they would have to say to interrupt our protest: ‘I really understand how you’re feeling right now.’  

Image of a poster Empathy

Many of us, taken aback by unexpected corporate empathy, lose the thread of what it is we need to be different. We forget that our feelings are not just feelings, to be managed in ‘emotional process’; they have content. They are about things. Sometimes, when they are about the WiFi, or the parcel, they are also, of course, about the mother-in-law, and the laundry, and the fact that a pat of butter costs twice as much as it did six months ago. But there is a presumptive quality to the invasion of corporate empathy here. The true courtesy, the really effective customer management, would be not to recast my request as emotional process, but to fix the content. The system doesn’t work; I want a returns label, and a reply to my email, and for the WiFi to come back when you say it will.  

Because here’s the truth of it: Virgin Media are not our partners or our sisters, our colleagues or our friends. They are not even the person in the bus queue, or the elderly lady at the checkout. They are Virgin Media. If they want to recast the boundaries of what we owe to each other, the understanding we extend to one another as human beings, and the realm of common humanity beyond the personal, they will have to engage in some major ethical considerations. For example: what happens when the human qualities of empathy and compassion are routinized in corporate strategy? What are the implications of recasting customer service as emotional management? To what extent is Monisha, on WhatsApp, now my micro-therapist? 

I wonder if they understand how I feel about that.  

Critically but warmly yours, over functioning broadband,