Emotional Intelligence and Customer Experience

August 7, 201910min

We’ve all read so much about emotion in Customer Experience – we see articles about defining the emotions we want customers to experience with our brand and we watch videos emphasising the importance of recognising the emotional state of our customers.

There are more conversations than ever about the use of emotion and sentiment analysis. In my view, this content is, at its best, flawed and at its worst, utter rubbish

The reason why I make this statement is because I spent six months researching and writing an academic paper entitled It’s all in the mind – unleashing the power of emotional intelligence and its ability to create positive customer memories.

The paper covered the emotion in customers, between staff and between leaders and staff (the internal emotional environment is often described as Employee Experience or engagement and not described as emotion in CX), memory, emotional intelligence, and changing trends in Customer Experience.

Emotion is not what we think it is

Historically, emotion has been categorised into six basic types: anger, happiness, surprise, disgust, sadness, and fear. With increasingly sophisticated brain imaging techniques, scientists can examine emotional activity, presenting a new view of emotions as a simulation based on the person’s previous experience, the context of the experience, and their understanding of the experience in that moment.

Emotions are as unique as our fingerprints.

It is impossible for us to define the emotions we want our customers to feel. It’s inconceivable that we can interpret emotion using language from limited sources. We should consider the emotional states of the colleagues we are trying to influence to create the change our customers would value. 

Weigh to go: Successfully balancing emotional intelligence in an organisation can lead to better CX

Emotion in Customer Experience

The Experience Economy, written in 1999, introduced the idea of Customer Experience and the notion that customers were bored with the consumption of products and services. For businesses to differentiate themselves, the authors claimed that brands needed to create emotionally immersive experiences to create emotional connections.

Buying decisions are emotional processes, yet we do not equip our people with the skills to respond to any emotional state (emotional simulation) presented by customers during their journey. Instead, we teach them how to deal with complaints and angry customers.

We design experiences intended to make customers happy or develop ‘tailor-made’ interventions staff can call on when things happen. We want to respond to the emotions of our customers but we think that we can’t make every encounter personal in that moment or it will be too expensive.

We’ve got it all wrong.

The development and use of emotional intelligence will not only enable staff to differentiate their brand through more emotionally connected customer contact, it will enable people across the silos that exist within businesses to make sustainable changes that customers truly value. 

Emotional intelligence isn’t just about empathy or being nice

Daniel Goleman, the author, psychologist, and science journalist responsible for popularising the skill of emotional intelligence, reminds his readers that emotional intelligence is not just about being nice. His definition of the skill is:

Your ability to recognise and understand emotions in yourself and others and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behaviour and relationships. Emotional Intelligence is the something in each of us that is a bit intangible. It affects how we manage behaviour, navigate social complexity and make personal decisions that achieve positive results.”

Whenever I run emotional intelligence workshops, my delegates describe the skill as the ability to develop empathy. Some know about the first competence, which is to have a high degree of self-awareness, but very few know the 12 competencies shown below.

Why emotional intelligence is so important in CX

People with high levels of emotional intelligence are more successful professionally and lead happier personal lives. Taking four of the competencies from the grid above indicates the impact that emotional intelligence could have on Customer Experience:

  • Emotional self-awareness: the ability to understand your own emotions and the effect on your performance. Imagine being able to recognise emotional states within yourself and as a consequence being a highly effective communicator.
  • Achievement orientation: when individuals are striving to meet or exceed a standard of excellence and feedback on their performance. Imagine the impact this would have between individuals in different teams and between customers and staff.
  • Organisational awareness: the ability to read a group’s emotional currents and power relationships, and identify influencers, networks, and the dynamics of an organisation. Imagine knowing who to influence so that you could create a workplace with greater psychological safety; where staff intuitively knew (and were able to carry out) the right thing to do for their customers.
  • Conflict management: individuals help others through emotional or tense situations, tactfully bringing disagreements into the open and defining solutions everyone can endorse. Imagine creating the change customers value in this emotionally intelligent environment.

So what?

The discipline of Customer Experience is having a hard time at the moment. Some writers claim that CEOs are losing patience with CX initiatives as they fear that they will not return the value they promise, reminiscent of CRM investments 20 years ago.   

The idea of adopting emotional intelligence across an organisation presents a new approach by becoming more customer-centric. Given that emotions are as unique as fingerprints, it may serve organisations better to equip their staff with the skills they need to cater with whatever emotions customers present at any time (rather than train them to deal with complaints and become more generally empathetic). 

In addition, colleagues are more likely to make the type of changes customers truly value with less conflict and more teamwork when they share skills in emotional intelligence.


Click here for details of the Applied Customer Experience training course at Pearson College London.

Sandra Thompson

Sandra Thompson

Sandra Thompson is an Associate Lecturer at Pearson Business School and the founding director of Exceed all Expectations, a management consultancy that helps organisations achieve better results through strategic planning and communication.

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