In the world of support, we spend a lot of time thinking about the tools, processes, and metrics we need to serve our customers successfully. Indeed, operations, analysis, and a pragmatic approach are essential for any strong support team.
On the other hand, there’s another realm, one that’s less measurable and more abstract: the realm of emotions. And when it comes to customers and companies, emotions matter.
According to behavioral researchers, when people make decisions, they use a part of the brain called “System 1,” which relies on emotions, and is in fact much larger and faster than the logic-driven parts of our brain, called “System 2.”
Other consumer research aligns with this. For example, when evaluating brands, customers primarily use emotions like personal feelings and experiences, as opposed to information like facts and features. Another study found that positive emotions toward a brand have a much greater influence on loyalty than judgments which are based on a brand’s attributes.
Like any other human experience, customer support experiences have an important emotional component, as any of us who have had a particularly positive or negative support experience can attest. Truly, Maya Angelou had it right when she said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
All that said, companies aren’t necessarily hitting the mark when it comes to taking care of customers’ emotional needs. In a study by the Temkin Group, customers rated 40 percent of companies as poor on the emotion metric. That means that many customer support experiences are ending in negativity.
This is relatively consistent with research from Forrester which shows that the lowest-performing brands provided only two emotionally positive experiences for each negative one. In contrast, best-in-class brands average 17 emotionally positive experiences for every negative one.
To reach the echelon of these best-in-class businesses isn’t impossible, but it takes a well-equipped team and a thoughtful approach.
First and foremost, any attempts to emotionally connect with customers will fall flat without emotional intelligence.
Emotional intelligence, broadly put, is the ability to identify and manage one’s own emotions and the emotions of others. Psychologist Daniel Goleman has helped popularize the idea, and he breaks it into five components:
- Self-awareness: Recognizing and understanding one’s emotions and their effect on other people.
- Internal motivation: Using emotional factors to achieve goals, enjoying the process, and persevering through challenges.
- Social skills: Managing relationships, inspiring others, and building networks.
- Self-regulation: Controlling disruptive impulses, suspending judgment, and thinking before acting.
- Empathy: Sensing the emotions of other people.
Arguably, all five of these components are important for customer support teams, but the last two are particularly important.
Possessing self-regulation means being able to listen to harsh complaints from upset customers without reacting negatively. Self-regulation means being able to stay calm in the face of a crisis and to focus on the customer’s needs.
And empathy has been a buzzword in support for years, for good reason. Without the ability to empathize with how a customer is feeling and put yourself in their shoes, it’s difficult to genuinely respond and connect authentically. Empathy bridges the gap between you and the customer, building trust and the relationship.
Emotional intelligence can be practiced, but it’s wise to hire people who already have a high EQ and will be prepared to hit the ground running. Some questions to ask in the interview process:
- Have you ever noticed that someone at work was having a bad day? How did you know? What did you do?
- Can you describe a time you made a mistake at work? How did you handle it?
- Can you describe a time you had to give bad news? How did you do it?
- When was the last time you were angry at work and why?
- Have you ever dealt with an unreasonable customer? How did you help them?
Look for answers that include elements of self-awareness, internal motivation, social skills, self-regulation, and empathy to build a team that’s ready to work with, and impact, customer emotions.
Emotionally intelligent employees will naturally excel at working with customer emotions, but frameworks and examples will help support their intelligence and increase their impact.
Certainly one of the most popular examples of a business that knows how to provide positive experiences is Zappos, a company that is consistently lauded for its customer support. Zappos pioneered the concept of Personal Emotional Connections (PEC) in support experiences, and their employees are encouraged to create a PEC in every interaction.
As it turns out, PECs have measurable benefits. In a Stanford study, students were asked to reach an agreement in class, and 55% were successful. But when students made connections first by introducing themselves and sharing some of their backgrounds before trying to make the agreement, the success rate shot up to 90%.
Thus, making connections can significantly increase the chances of coming to an agreement and leaving customers feeling positive. Some ways to increase the odds of making a personal emotional connection:
- Respond to personal details that a customer shares. For example, if they mention that their birthday is coming up, that’s an opportunity to wish them a happy one and ask about their plans. Recognizing these details helps a customer feel acknowledged on a human level.
- Create commonality based on shared interests or experiences. If you and the customer have something in common, such as having gone on vacation to the same place or even having the same favorite product that your company sells, then that can create a connection point.
- Steer clear of jargon. Words that a customer doesn’t understand will make them feel confused and defensive, not included or connected.
- Admit mistakes. Being transparent about what’s gone wrong will build trust.
- Use a friendly tone. If you’re speaking over the phone, then you can use the pitch and rhythm of your voice to convey a warm and welcoming tone. If you’re communicating in writing, then the words you use are even more important. In-person communications can be impacted by body language. Uncrossing your arms and making eye contact will help you appear open and honest.
- Add some emoji. It can increase customer satisfaction, and it’s a surefire way to bring some familiarity to your communications.
Above all, treat each customer like a unique individual. No one wants to feel like just a ticket to be closed. Take some extra care to connect and some extra time for each conversation. You don’t need to stay on the phone for a legendary 10-hour call like Zappos has done, but a few spare seconds and a little effort to build rapport will go a long way.
Dealing with negative emotions
Be extra careful when dealing with customers who are upset. They won’t be in the mood for some of the tips listed above, like jokes or excessive small talk. First and foremost, they’ll want a solution to their problem.
One framework to follow with upset customers is The Apple Store’s 3 A’s: Acknowledge, Align, and Assure.
- Acknowledge the issue the customer has raised, and restate it to ensure understanding. Recognize that their feelings are valid. An example acknowledgment might be, “I understand that you’re contacting us regarding a late shipment. I know from experience that this is really frustrating.” A helpdesk system will provide you customer data from the previous interactions so you have a good context of the customer issue. This will assist in providing the best resolution to your customers.
- Align with the customer to let them know that you understand. Help them see that you’re on their side. For example, “I’m here to help.”
- Assure them that you’ll be working on a resolution. This might come in the form of something like, “We’ll get this figured on in the next couple of minutes.”
Acknowledging, aligning, and assuring are like ingredients for a successful interaction. They can be used out of order and in different quantities. However, it still takes a good cook, so to speak, to put them together properly. That’s why a team that’s naturally high in emotional intelligence will excel.
To inspire the positive customer emotions that lead to loyalty, build a team that’s high in emotional intelligence, give them frameworks that support that intelligence, then let the connections happen.