Using Emotional Intelligence to Serve the Customer

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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:

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:

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:

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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:

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:

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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