Using Emotional Intelligence to Serve the Customer


As customers we recognise good or bad service as soon as we receive it. As service providers, however, we are frequently in practice in danger of failing to recognise the sensitivities and needs of the customer. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the ability to put yourself in the customer?s shoes and to see things from their perspective.  This is most apparent when things go wrong, but EQ is relevant to every service act in the organisation.  In this article we look at why emotional intelligence is so important in a customer environment, what makes it a rare corporate attribute and how EQ can be developed. Finally, we provide an opportunity to assess your own EQ.

Why EQ is so important

The most "efficient" organisations are not always the most customer friendly. Research by Daniel Goleman, author of Working with Emotional Intelligence, (Bloomsbury, London 1999) indicates that when it comes to lasting relationships it is more often how we are and how we relate to customers rather than specialist technical skills and ability which counts with others.  Supermarket chain ASDA have grown increasingly successful by projecting a cheerful and responsive approach to each customer.  First Direct customer response staff are trained to respond individually to the mood and needs of each customer.

Service providers who are emotionally intelligent are those who have high awareness of:

  • Themselves and the range and depth of their feelings - sad, happy, depressed.
  • Other people and their feelings and what signals such feelings give off.
  • The impact they have on others.
  • The impact other people have on them.

They are able to use this knowledge to manage the way they deal with other people and to change the impact that others have on them or that they are having on the customer.

Every front-line service employee knows that handling multiple customer queries each day puts them under pressure.  It is very easy to take things personally, to become frustrated and stressed. Service providers with high emotional intelligence recognise their emotional temperatures and are able to control their effects. They take steps to pro-actively manage their stress levels and the way it comes out.

When handling customer calls, particularly difficult ones, the ability to empathise with the customer is key.  Service providers with high levels of EQ create rapport with customers by speaking their own language, by showing an interest and relating to what the customer is feeling. In this way they form better relationships with customers which lead to more effective results and are able to diffuse many difficult situations.

The reality: few organisations have high EQ

If a well developed ability to empathise with the customer is clearly so important, why is it not universal in service organisations?  What stops EQ being present throughout the organisation?  Here are some common reasons for poorly developed EQ:

  • Many managers are 'people insensitive'

Managers often reach positions of authority through their technical ability and their capacity to look dispassionately at facts and present information logically. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator© measures this as a preference for decision-making through Thinking.  Research suggests that more managers are higher on this scale than Feeling, which are those who actively pay attention to others. A study of the relative ineffectiveness of IT managers serving their internal clients observed 'One of the more noticeable aspects is how many of them find it hard to get in touch with their feelings?.  Such managers  pay more attention to:

  • facts  rather than  emotions
  • logic  rather than sensitivities

This approach affects the ability to listen more to customers and to colleagues and to create and maintain rapport.

- Many suffer from overload and stress

In an era of downsizing and re-engineering, employees feel increasingly under pressure as layers of  posts have been removed and they are working long hours.  Fear can lead them to take on a 'siege mentality', afraid to delegate and closed to the views or feelings of others for fear it will be personal criticism, or lead to even more work for the individual involved.

  • There is a deluge of information

As information availability has increased, so has the inability of managers and organisations to handle the data.  This has led to the situation where warning signs of poor quality or customer dissatisfaction go unheeded.

  • Interfaces have multiplied

The growth of outsourcing, alliances and global networks has led to more possibilities for confusion and distortion.  Cultural differences and barriers can harm the ability to understand and be understood.

  • Managers fear of letting go

Many managers are reluctant to empower and are overly concerned to keep control.  This leads to lack of trust, which others quickly pick up on.  Management textbooks report the death of the autocrat and controller  - we have seen plenty around the organisations we visit!

  • Poor role models

In view of what we have said so far, it is not surprising that senior mangers often display negative and insensitive behaviours.  In turn their managers and staff pick up the signals and behave in a similar way, and so the cycle repeats itself.  For years one organisation we worked with instilled a 'do as you're told' mentality.  Latterly, it has been seeking new ideas and its top management are puzzled why so few challenge the status quo.  Old habits are hard to change.  At a course dinner, the company's director harangued the managers for lack of challenge, whilst they all sat quietly, fearful of the consequences of speaking out on their careers.

  • Shielding of impact

We become shielded from the consequences of our actions.  Employees of large organisations frequently do not feel the personal impact of their decisions.  E-mail and voice mail have heightened this cocooning impact which can lead to an approach of 'it wasn't my fault'.

How to increase your own EQ and that of your team:

There are many approaches you can use as a line manager to increase your own EQ and that of others in your team. Here is a selection of methods:

  • Find ways during recruitment to check out the level of candidates' EQ. For example, ask how they handled difficult customer problems.  Watch for responses that indicate empathy and concern for the customer.
  • Mystery shop your service: Ask your team to experience the service they provide from a customer?s perspective and to identify the feelings this experience generated.
  • Mystery shop your competitors and encourage your team to do the same, noting how the needs of customers were met.
  • Encourage your team to bring in examples of best practice in customer service and those which display EQ.
  • Feed back comments from customers.  Use customer research to identify how each service provider is performing.
  • Monitor performance and provide on-going coaching.  Focus on 'how' the service provider relates to the customer as well as their knowledge or skills.
  • Provide training on the skills needed in handling difficult customer situations. Put particular emphasis on showing genuine empathy to the customer when things go wrong. Studies show that complaining customers will not listen until you show that you truly understand their situation.
  • Engender a 'can-do' attitude in your team by empowering them to make decisions to help the customer.
  • Coach your team in use of rapport building techniques such as recognising customer moods and adapting service style to match, use of mirroring verbal and non-verbal cues (where appropriate), showing a genuine interest in the customer.
  • Talk with your team about how to deal with difficult customer issues. Pass on this information to other parts of the organisation so that steps can be taken to avoid these problems.
  • Give feedback to your team on how they are performing - motivational feedback will develop their level of confidence and formative feedback will help them to improve.  Be prepared to listen to feedback on your own performance.
  • Talk about what causes your team stress as part of your regular team meetings. Take steps to overcome causes of stress. Provide training to your team in stress management.
  • Make time to find out the expectations of other groups and colleagues.  Encourage an internal customer approach to handling their expectations.
  • Act as a role model for your team. Take time with them and give time to customers. Acknowledge what individuals in your team are feeling and offer them help and support.

At the heart of developing employee and customer-centred skills is the willingness to take time to regularly make contact with stakeholders, inside and outside the organisation.  Successful organisations who display high EQ put emphasis in these areas:

  • Communicating business priorities and changes - and listening to how people feel about them
  • Taking time to build trusting relationships through the whole value chain: Ensure you keep your promise - explain your priorities and respond to others, not just your own agenda
  • Interchange people and circulate knowledge across teams
  • Clarify expectations and discuss successes and shortfalls openly
  • Leaders set an example by being open to feedback and putting communication and listening high on their priority list
  • Build systems which encourage EQ, for example communicating and rewarding good examples of relating to the customer
  • Develop EQ skills through regular reviews, coaching and training.

Assess your own EQ

Look at the following statements and, using the scoring system where:

• Agree strongly   Score 5
• Agree to some extent  Score 4
• Neither agree or disagree Score 3
• Disagree somewhat  Score 2
• Disagree strongly  Score 1

Rate to what extent you agree that you:

Self Awareness Score
1. I am aware of situations which cause me to think negatively  
2. I recognise the emotions I fell when dealing with customers  
3. I recognise what influences my way of thinking  
4. I know when I am angry or sad  
5. I know when I fell motivated and when I do not  
6. I am confident in who I am  
Total Score: Self Awareness  


Awareness of own impact on others  Score
7. I know when I am not handling a customer situation well 
8. I am aware of how my mood affects others around me 
9. I have an accurate assessment of myself 
10. I have received feedback from customers on the impact of  my behaviours   
11. I am aware when I make other people feel good about  themselves   
12. I know when my message is not clear to the customer   
Total score : Awareness of own impact on others   


Awareness of others' emotions  Score
13. I can identify customers' emotion from their tone of voice   
14. I am aware when customers are upset   
15. I am able to put myself in the customers' shoes and acknowledge their feelings   
16. I know when someone is not being sincere   
17. I can understand when customers get angry   
18. I notice when others say things that are inconsistent with what they appear to be feeling   
Total Total score : Awareness of others' emotions   


Awareness of the impact of others' emotions on self  score
19. I know what phrases customers use which upset me   
20. I am aware when customers are trying to manipulate me   
21. I know which customers I sympathise with   
22. I know when someone is trying to get me to agree to them   
23. I recognise when customers make me angry   
24. I am aware when customers make me feel patronised   
Total score: Awareness of the impact of others' emotions on self  


Ability to manage self  score
25. I know how to control my emotions when customers get angry   
26. I am able to say no to the customer without feeling guilty 
27. I am diplomatic   
28. I express what I am feeling in an appropriate manner   
29. I rarely take customer comments personally   
30. I can change my approach with a customer if my first attempt  is not successful   
Total score : Ability to manage self   

Analysing your scores

Look at the scores for each of the five sections above:

1. Self Awareness
2. Awareness of own impact on others
3. Awareness of others? emotions
4. Awareness of the impact of others? emotions on self
5. Ability to manage self

You need to score over 24 out of 30 in all five sections for you to be considered effective in creating and maintaining effective relationships. Look at the areas where you have low scores and consider the actions you can take to increase these scores.

Sarah Cook and Steve Macaulay. Sarah is Managing Director of Customer Care specialists, The Stairway Consultancy. Steve is from Cranfield School of Management. They can be contacted on 01628 526535.

Myers Briggs Type Indicator is a registered trade mark of Consulting Psychologists Press

The EQ questionnaire is taken from 'Compendium of Customer Service Questionnaires and Inventories' by Sarah Cook, published by Gower.

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