Building empathy at scale

How Walmart infuses customer service with kindness

walmart customer using self checkout
walmart associate sweeps store aisle

You’ve just begun work for the day as a frontline associate at Walmart when an anxious customer flags you down at the front of the store.

With an agitated tone and body language, the customer says, “This is my neighborhood store, and I’ve shopped here for 12 years. I deserve respect as much as anyone else who shops here. The people who work here need to be held responsible for their actions!”

He pauses and points at you as he asks: “What are you going to do about it?”

With no context into what happened, you’re caught off guard. It’s easy to get defensive or match his anger. So what do you do?

De-escalation training begins with empathy

While this type of scenario might seem extreme, it’s entirely within the realm of what retail associates experience on the job all the time. That’s why, for customer-facing roles at Walmart and other retail operations, training on empathy is so necessary.
If an associate cannot see the situation from the customer’s point of view and apply kindness to their response, it’s nearly impossible to effectively de-escalate.

De-escalation training is critical for frontline workers to master, but it can be one of the most challenging things to learn through traditional training methods. Only by having real conversations with customers can associates gain the practice and confidence they need to respond with kindness, calmness, and empathy.

These soft skills can’t simply be gained with paper tests or traditional e-learning scenarios. But ideally, associates must master them before they start working with actual customers.

Walmart addressed this by adding a Virtual Reality training component to its beKIND model, both to teach and measure empathy in customer service. Within this new Immersive Learning de-escalation training, associates encounter an upset customer in their headset and have the opportunity to practice a measured and kind response.

Prompts in the experience remind the learner to, “Keep calm and introduce yourself.” Then, as the conversation continues, associates are reminded about keeping calm as they gain more insight into why the customer is upset and witness the interaction from the customer’s point of view.

At first, the associate’s response to the customer might be reactive or inelegant. But with practice, it improves. And this is exactly what Immersive Learning enables — the opportunity to practice a scenario over and over in a realistic environment until one has mastered the optimal way to handle it.

Immersive Learning provides immediate feedback in the learning space

Real empathy begins when learners can put themselves in the customer’s shoes. As part of the learning experience, there is a playback feature: learners watch, listen to, and experience their recorded performance to self-evaluate. This often drives the most behavioral change, since people can see how they present themselves to others.

Within the beKIND VR de-escalation training module, associates experience the conversation from the customer’s perspective and are asked to rate their performance. From “excellent” to “very poor,” they signify how well they believed they performed.

In VR de-escalation training, mistakes are “free”

One of the great benefits of de-escalation training in VR is that the experiences feel real — research shows that learners’ brains even treat them as real — but any mistakes that are made don’t result in lost customers or revenue. Essentially, mistakes are “free.”

Rather than learn the hard way and create friction with a real customer, associates build their confidence to handle these rather unpleasant scenarios by making their mistakes in a true learning environment.

The measured effectiveness of de-escalation training

During a time when health, safety, and cultural tensions are high, this type of de-escalation training initiative can play a significant role in improving employee-customer interactions, not to mention diversity and inclusion efforts.

For Walmart, one of the biggest achievements for the beKIND Immersive Learning module was adoption. Despite not being mandatory, the module achieved 100% of Walmart’s adoption goal in just a few weeks.
This module, combined with all of Walmart’s other Immersive Learning initiatives, helps demonstrate that associates want engaging training on soft skills — and that better skills make them feel more confident on the job.

While customer service positions inherently include occasional difficult conversations, having the grace and ability to be kind and empathetic during stressful moments is crucial for the job. It is also an incredible way to empower employees and improve the customer experience.

Immersive Learning offers the space to practice difficult customer conversations and build empathy skills.