"That happened to me" isn't empathy. It's deception.


Copywriting Empathy

Empathy’s a powerful tool.

But it’s frustrating when it’s not used intelligently. You find that frustrating, don’t you? I know how you feel.

I’ve worked on lots of copywriting projects which demanded a touch of sympathy. A friendly voice that understands your financial predicament, or shows the warmth of a family GP.

Of course, empathy isn’t always real. It’s slight of hand, a trick we use to make copy connect with people. In short, it’s one of the irresistible lies we tell.

But, as I found out when dealing with Microsoft’s Live Support, some people aren’t very good liars.

Why I Needed Microsoft Support

It’s probably not strictly copywriting, but I recently dealt with communications coming out of Microsoft in the form of their live support team.

I’ll give you some brief background to why I got in touch with them. Because it’s fairly boring, I’ll do it in useful bullet points:

  • I had a subscription, but the payment card I’d set up expired
  • I had a Paypal account linked to my Microsoft login, but didn’t want the money taken from there
  • I added a new payment card on the website
  • I tried to switch the payment methods, but the button on the website didn’t work

So the Microsoft Billing website was broken, and that’s where it started. I was carefully pushed away from calling anyone, and directed to try live chat with a support expert.

Well, I say expert…

How It Went Wrong

Things got off to a decent enough start. I explained that I needed the subscription moved from the expired debit card to the new one. Easy.

“No worries,” the agent said enthusiastically. “I can help you with this.”

Just an (incredibly slow) 15 minute wait, and it was done. The payment had gone through and everything was okay.

Other than the fact that I received an email from Paypal, telling me the money had been taken from there. The wrong account. Not what I asked them to do.

I explained that this caused a problem. With some client payments coming in through Paypal (and not a lot else), I now had an accounting workload that I didn’t have before, and wouldn’t have had if the payment had been taken from my card.

The agent – and when I say the agent, I mean Microsoft – had given me work to do.

Sure, I was frustrated. Yes, I was even mildly annoyed. But I would’ve let it go if the agent hadn’t said:

“I totally understand and feel you, Stephen. I was in a similar situation myself and it drove me nuts.”

Hitting the Empathy Button

Copywriting Empathy Button

(Image from Glass Giant)

It was like this Microsoft support agent had a special button on her keyboard, one marked “Empathy”.

The button triggered a sentence that was so obviously pre-written, and so inappropriate to the situation, that I was genuinely shocked.

What an incredibly specific, unusual situation to be in. Unless, of course, you’re lying.

A quick Google led to me a forum thread that shows this is the stock phrase for “Show empathy now”.

And my point isn’t about the mistakes that happened, or the use of a pre-written response.

It’s just a really badly written phrase to use.

Copywriting Empathy Isn’t Copywriting Coincidence

You see, showing empathy doesn’t mean saying “Yeah, I had that exact same thing!” That’s not understanding.

That’s lying. (And not in a good way.) It’s deceiving people.

Instead, showing empathy should recognise that we all feel the same things, but every situation is unique. I don’t want to hear that this happens all the time. I don’t want to know that somebody else had the same problem. I don’t care about other people.

I care about me.

So I want to hear an apology, and hear someone say they understand how I feel – even though how I feel is an individual thing.

When we’re copywriting for technical support, customer service, or even true sales copy for a brand that’s all about helping people, we need to show understanding.

I don’t expect a bank to say “Hey, we’ve got no money either!”. Just tell me it’s rubbish to need cash, and that they can help.

I don’t expect a doctor to say “Y’know, I’ve been feeling dizzy all day, too!”.

And I certainly didn’t expect Microsoft to underplay, undermine, and undervalue a frustrating situation by pretending it had happened to them.

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  • If an agent had said “I totally understand and feel you, Ben” I would have completely freaked out thinking I had called Massagesoft or some other inappropriate “helpline”. Like you, I couldn’t care less about empathy when receiving support – I just want my issue fixed now.

    • Ben – WordPress told me you were spam! You clearly have a spammy vibe about you.

      But thanks for the comment! It’s so true. Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to hear a bit of empathy. I want the person I’m talking with to understand that I’m annoyed.

      But anything beyond that’s just ridiculous.

      Also, while I remember – well done to myself for not making a single comment about Microsoft ‘feeling me’ throughout that entire post.

      • Maybe it’s because I used the HTML tags provided to emphasise just how grotesque that phrase was. Or because I have a beard.

        • I don’t think it’s the beard. The terrorism filter didn’t flash up.

  • Afy

    I totally understand and feel you and get you and dig you and know you, Stephen. The situation you’re in now is a situation. I’ve been in a situation myself and it drove me the same feeling you’re feeling.

    • The greatest comment I’ve ever received.

      Or am I lying?

  • Unbelievable!
    The very reason we try Live Chat is to speak to an actual human who can understand and help us in a way that website copy can’t.
    Love the comparison with the doctor too.
    Great post.

    • Thanks! Although the only reason I used Live Chat is because, like so many firms now, they made it the only way I could get help!