How Emotional Intelligence Improves Your Customer Service

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emotional intelligence and customer service

When you’re considering expanding, especially if you lead a small or medium-sized company, the reality is that anyone who joins your business will likely be customer-facing in some capacity.

The traditional hiring approach is to frame the search based on a few standard qualities: Does the candidate have certain computer skills? Do they know the ins and outs of certain software programs? Do they have a certain type of customer service background?

“None of that is important,” says Sean, the head of our customer advocacy team. And he’s been saying that same thing for a long time.

None of it? Who, then, would he recommend hiring, and based on what qualifications?

“All of those things are skills one can gain or be taught,” he says. “What’s truly important, what will make a great customer service employee, is empathy. If they can connect with people, if they can relate to them and ‘feel their pain’, that’s what really matters. We can teach them all the rest but we cannot ever teach someone empathy.”

Sean says that while he does still screen candidates for certain educational and technical requirements, empathy is the primary thing he looks for in new hires. Whether a candidate has the minimum skills and experience for a particular role will always be important, their ability to demonstrate empathy deserves serious consideration too.

And even when your team is hiring for roles that will only spend part of their time interacting with customers, it still pays to intentionally seek candidates who are naturally empathetic and possess strong emotional intelligence skills.

What is emotional intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is essentially the ability recognize and manage emotions. This means being aware of your own and handling them appropriately, as well as correctly identifying and reacting to the emotions of others.

The concept gained popularity in 1995 when New York Times science reporter Daniel Goleman published “Emotional Intelligence.” Now considered a highly valuable job skill, emotional intelligence has become a bit of a buzzword. However, it’s arguably one you should be paying attention to—especially in the context of offering good customer service.

Why it matters for those in a customer service-facing role

Being able to act with emotional intelligence often means understanding and regulating your own emotions. Are you self-aware enough to keep your temper in check even when you are frustrated? Are you mentally flexible and able to adapt to new ways of doing things? Are you good at communicating our feelings to others and working through issues?

However, emotional intelligence is about more than just managing your own behavior and emotions. That’s just the foundation. Especially in the context of front-facing employees, it’s about understanding and empathizing with customers.

These two sides of emotional intelligence are separate but deeply connected. After all, it’s nearly impossible to respond well to others if we do not have a solid handle on our own emotions.

“I notice a big difference in customer satisfaction levels when staff people pay attention to customers’ emotional states and address their emotional needs, as well as their product or service needs,” says Celeste, our customer advocacy team supervisor. In a recent post on customer service superpowers, she shared some specific steps and helpful language on how to let customers know that they’re being heard, and how to form an emotionally intelligent response.

How to increase your emotional intelligence for better communication with customers

The reality is that for many companies, wearing multiple hats is the norm; you and everyone else on your team are likely talking to customers every day by phone, email and in person.

And, it’s inevitable that customers will sometimes come to you disappointed, annoyed, or downright mad at you. It will be for you to hear them out, engage with them, and make the situation right. How will you handle the interaction with humanity, warmth, and understanding?

The good news? Though Sean’s point that it’s extremely difficult to teach empathy still stands, if you and your team are committed to honing your skills, there are plenty of steps you can take to improve how well you listen to and empathize with your customers.

  • Spend more time listening. When you are talking to customers, focus less on how you feel. Try to step into their shoes and understand how they feel, regardless of whether it seems illogical, or like a clear misunderstanding of the facts. The important thing is to listen deeply and look for clues about what they are feeling. In email messages, pay attention to the vocabulary that they’re using, their punctuation, and even the length of their sentences. Over the phone and in person, you have the added benefit of being about to hear their tone in real time, but you’ll still need to practice reading between the lines a bit.
  • Express that you have heard them. Building on the idea of listening more, explicitly let the customer know that you have heard their words, acknowledge the clues you’ve observed about how they are feeling, and let them know that you would like to work with them to achieve resolution.
  • Set up processes to help control your emotions. If a customer sends you an angry email and riles you up, make it a point to wait until you respond. Give it half an hour and then respond with your own emotions in check. Sometimes it can help to talk it through with a coworker. Above all, don’t furiously type your own heated response and immediately click send. Give yourself space to calm down first.
  • Swallow your pride. Make an effort to show humility and admit that your perspective isn’t the only way to view things. Remember, who’s actually right is rarely the most important issue, and avoiding getting into a battle of wills with an upset customer is worth a lot.
  • Tailor your response to each individual customer. “Adjust your delivery of information according to the way the customer is communicating with you,” suggests Celeste.
    • “If they are speaking quickly with a tone of tension, let them know what you’re going to do and how long you expect it will take, so they know what to expect.
    • “If they take a while to express their concern because they are telling a detailed story leading up to it, you can probably take your time with them, and they may be hoping for some friendly conversation from you. Assessing a customer’s emotional state at the beginning of your interaction can help you plan a response that is personalized and more than just satisfactory.”
emotional intelligence and customer service

How can you build a team with strong emotional intelligence skills?

When you’re growing your team,  taking steps to assess your candidate’s emotional intelligence should be a key part of your process.

Pay attention to cover letters

“I sometimes learn more from a cover letter than the actual resume attached to it,” Celeste says. “I like to see a letter that includes a courteous salutation and expresses something personal.

“If the applicant expresses how they feel about the opportunity and why they are interested in the job, it makes me feel like I’m beginning to build a connection with a human being, and the job is more than just a job for them.”

Ask behavioral interview questions

“Human interaction is at the core of customer service, so I look for more than just experience and technical skills when assessing applicants,” says Celeste.

“In an interview, we include questions about how he or she handled a particular situation with a customer, and ask for a specific example, so the answer is not just a theoretical solution, but something they’ve really experienced. I listen for references to how the customer felt, and how he or she addressed their emotions.”

Behavioral interview questions can help you skip the part where candidates just tell you what they think you want to hear (the idealistic response), and focus on getting far more useful response that cover what they have actually done in the past.

Hire candidates who would rather get it right than end the conversation quickly

Candidates who demonstrate that they’re more interested in resolving the customer’s issue completely than rather than wrapping up the interaction quickly will ultimately be more successful.

“If someone on our team doesn’t immediately know the answer to a customer’s question, they have access to many resources and team members they can consult to find the answers,” she says.

In her experience, customers don’t seem to object to waiting while you gather information or seek help to solve their problem—if they are aware of (and addressing) the customer’s emotional state. “No one else can address that person’s feelings but the staff person communicating with them at that moment,” Celeste says.

A more human customer service experience

As our ability to automate processes advances, we’ve become increasingly used to interacting with chatbots and faceless customer service.

“It’s becoming less common to receive customer support from a human being, as more and more services become automated and self-serve. Making a human interaction satisfying and memorable can be good for business,” says Celeste.

Here, Celeste touches on an important point that I hadn’t initially considered: with our recent ability to automate practically everything, interactions with real humans running a business sometimes feels like a fond memory, rather than a current reality.

Because of this, developing strong emotional intelligence skills is vital to those who interact with customers at all—and in small organizations, that’s usually everyone. By working on developing your own emotional intelligence skills as well as choosing team members who are emotionally intelligent, you will set your business up for better relationships with customers, and a more satisfying customer experience overall.

Posted in Customer Service

Briana Morgaine

Briana Morgaine

Briana is the content marketing specialist for Outpost and Palo Alto Software. She enjoys discussing marketing, social media, and the pros and cons of the Oxford comma. Briana is a resident of Portland, Oregon, and can be found working remotely from a variety of local coffee shops.