Customer Experience

Empathy Is Key, Especially for Visa Applications


5 min to read

Empathy Is Key, Especially for Visa Applications

When looking for ways to improve customer experience, technical improvements often take the limelight. But human interactions are just as important, if not more so, to make a genuine difference.

When it comes to creating a great customer experience, technology, however cutting-edge, can only go so far. A study recently published in the Journal of Marketing perfectly illustrates this limit: angry customers, researchers say, are getting even angrier when dealing with an anthropomorphic chatbot. The reason? The humanlike characteristics heighten their expectations that the chatbot will be able to solve their problem as a human being would. Hence their frustration when the bot simply can’t.

Empathy Goes a Long Way

In other words, human interactions matter and cannot easily be replaced by a chatbot, however realistic it might be. Whether they happen online, by phone or in person, these interactions influence the way an organisation, an institution or a process is perceived by the customer. The main reason behind this? Empathy. As McKinsey, a consultancy, put it in a recent article, “To respond quickly to a constantly changing environment, companies will need to have a broad base of employees that know how to empathise with the customer, apply customer insights, and redesign the experience through digital excellence and contactless engagement.” That empathy is in first place on their list speaks volumes.

Visa processing obeys the same rule: whatever the reason for travelling abroad and the outcome of the process, being taken care of by empathetic staff can make a huge difference. Especially when the procedure itself is somewhat lengthy or cumbersome, and could be perceived as cold and unfriendly by a stressed or worried traveller.

However, acting empathetically is easier said than done. The results of a recent survey of 201 executives by the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services clearly underline this: 72% of these executives said they “understand what it feels like to be one of our customers”. However, only 35% of consumers in the same survey agreed that companies understand them well.

The “High Tech, High Touch” Approach

TLScontact is part of Teleperformance, the global leader in outsourced customer and citizen experience management and related digital services, with nearly 420,000 employees in 88 countries. One of the reasons Teleperformance has grown to become the leader of its sector is its relentless focus on human interaction. Which doesn’t mean downplaying technology: on the contrary. As set out in a Harvard Business Review white paper published in 2019 and sponsored by Teleperformance, technology should be viewed as an enabler of human interactions, not a substitute. This is what the Boston Consulting Group calls “industrial intimacy”: leveraging technology in the service of effective and empathetic human interactions with customers.

How Do We Apply Empathy in our daily work?

The staff at our visa centres interact every day with hundreds of visa applicants as they submit their applications, carry out biometric enrolment, and ask questions about the process. For some of our visitors, getting a visa is a routine matter; for others, it’s the first time, or even the start of a life-changing journey. Some customers are relaxed about the whole procedure, others are more stressed or worried. Our teams know that each visitor is unique and treats them so, doing their best not only to provide the service requested, but to do so in a friendly and engaging manner. We encourage them to go out of their way to make our customers feel supported.

As Neil McAtamney, Manager of our Dublin Visa Application Centre puts it, “We aim to deliver outstanding citizen experiences. This requires a high level of empathy as the customer journey is not always smooth and we are dealing with a full range of reasons for travel. The journey can be routine or it can be prompted by important life milestones. Some are happy, but unfortunately some are sad and, in extreme cases, they can involve people fleeing from conflict.”

So how do we know this is more than a mere statement? First, by measuring our level of performance and customer satisfaction using an Enterprise Feedback Management (EFM) programme developed by our sister company TP Knowledge Services. EFM has the added advantage of allowing us to test in real time the impact on overall satisfaction of any changes that we make to the customer journey. Second, we monitor the reviews left by our customers on external services such as Google Maps and Trustpilot. Both sources give us confidence that we are taking the right approach.

Some of the stories we hear from our visitors are very moving. Recently, the mother of a young, autistic girl came to one of our centres to complete her visa application process and submit their biometrics. “Our daughter was extremely scared of the biometrics side of things. The care, empathy and understanding we received from the staff was beyond our expectations. They couldn’t do enough to help and their patience was amazing!” she told us in an email she sent us afterwards. “We will never forget your compassion and willingness to make an extremely difficult and traumatic experience easier. In a time when the world is upside down, it is reassuring to encounter such kindness.”

Desperate Times

The beginning of the Ukraine war was another opportunity for our people to demonstrate the value of effective, empathetic human interactions. Representing UK Visas & Immigration across Europe, we had to increase capacity across our European operations almost overnight to accommodate the influx of people fleeing the conflict and applying for a visa to the UK. This required finding extra office space, shipping in additional biometric enrolment equipment and moving staff from other European centres and beyond to process applications as swiftly as possible.  As many refugees did not speak English, we brought in Ukrainian-speaking staff, some of whom had themselves just fled the conflict, and we developed online and printed guidance in Ukrainian as quickly as we could. Our front-line staff worked relentlessly in the first few weeks of the crisis to process applications and provide support and guidance.

The feedback we received from the refugees who went through our centres was heart-warming, particularly in Warsaw. This is where we saw the highest number of people in need, and where at one point, we had nearly 50 employees from 13 different countries providing support. One customer remembers Zana, the manager who welcomed her. “She was on her day off, but she came nonetheless, and took documents and biometrics until 11 p.m., without even lunch or a coffee break. It’s impossible to describe in words how kindly she approached people and helped them.” Another describes our teams’ efforts to find new ways to help people faster. “As we had to come to the visa centre a few times, I was genuinely impressed by the way they were improving and simplifying the process every day. The staff in the visa centre worked really hard, some days until midnight, to see as many people as they could.”

Everyday Dedication to Get the First Contact Right

Desperate times, desperate measures, the saying goes. But even everyday life at our visa application centres gives our teams ample opportunity to shine and display genuine empathy. “From the security at the front door to the biometrics, fantastic, professional and friendly service,” says another customer. “I want to especially mention the lady who handled our application and the gentleman who did the biometrics. They were absolutely wonderful, and very patient with our children who asked many questions, most of them unrelated to visa proceedings.”

The main reason we put so much effort into cultivating an empathetic mindset is because we understand how incredibly important a visa application can be to the customer sitting in front of us. We are also very mindful of the fact that for many visa applicants, their first contact with their destination country is likely to be at one of our visa centres. Our staff are ambassadors of both the TLScontact brand and of our client countries. We therefore want to make sure that the first impression we give customers is a positive one, encouraging them to renew the experience in future.

As part of the Teleperformance group, we at TLScontact are convinced that Each Interaction Matters, even more so when it comes to visa processing. A professional, but warm human touch can make a genuine difference to customers as they prepare the all-important first step on their journey.

Article written by
Gabriele Piva, Chief Operating Officer

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