Making Customers Feel Valued with Emotional Intelligence: An Interview with Sandra Thompson

September 7, 202015min

It’s become a practice in CX to employ empathy to understand and connect with customers. While it is beneficial to put in the effort to satisfy your customers’ needs, what is more important is to have them coming back.

Exceeding customer expectations is one of the ways to retain customers. It’s safe to say that exceeding expectations goes hand in hand with great customer experience, both based on a keen eye and ear for customers needs.

Sandra Thompson, the first certified Goleman Emotional Intelligence coach in the UK and a lecturer at Pearson College London talks about the benefits of Emotional Intelligence in CX and the science behind exceeding expectations (and how to do it correctly).

Read below Sandra’s philosophy of CX improvement, with an interesting twist on empathy and the online course titled Applied Customer Experience and Emotional Intelligence. The course aims to accelerate business results by taking CX to the next level with greater emotional intelligence…

Hi Sandra, tell us about your professional background and how you came into the position you are at now.

I started out my career as a marketeer. I had a number of quite big roles in both commercial and not-for-profit organisations and while I was working I studied. I completed the Chartered Institute of Marketing diploma and a Masters in Strategic Marketing and Communications before I quit my job and took a solo trip around the world.

I came to this position in my life because I realised I was disillusioned with the gap between what I was promising as a marketing message and what was being delivered to the customer. I wanted to have more influence over the operation, to make it as brilliant as we said it would be in our marketing messages but I didn’t know how to do that.

Then I found out about this thing called Customer Experience. It was big in the States. So I went out to the US. I was trained in CX by some guys in New York. It was an intensive week-long programme in New Jersey and I remember thinking “This is it! This is amazing! I love this stuff!”.

At the time I worked for a charity and they wanted me to get involved in a CRM (basically a database) project and I said I would but asked if we could make it more about Patient Experience than CRM? I was so proud when we set up the CX governance and secured the budget for my first ‘experience’ programme and I was so glad when I spent more time on that than marketing. When I was made redundant from the charity I took the opportunity to start my own CX consultancy. That’s 10 years ago now.

I started teaching customer experience and some people management topics to undergraduates at Pearson Business School about 5 years ago and in 2017 I launched my own postgraduate Applied Customer Experience course with accreditation from the Business School. In the last 18 months I’ve become the first Goleman Emotional Intelligence Coach in the UK. That’s why I now run the Applied Customer Experience and Emotional Intelligence course with Pearson Business School support.

Why is emotional intelligence important in CX?

If we think about our own experiences, we are going to remember the ones that are either extremely positive or negative. The things that are ‘vanilla’ we just don’t remember because nothing stands out about them.

The behavioural scientist Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, says that when we experience extremes in emotion we are more likely to remember them. This doesn’t mean that an extreme experience has to happen every time, but the feeling you have about that experience is extreme – maybe it ‘touched a nerve’, it brought back other fond memories or you just felt cared for and supported?

We don’t often remember about the times when someone just did enough or just did what they said they we’re going to do. If we want to create memories, the opportunity to do so is when we can do things that are thoughtful. When you can go beyond what someone is expecting you to do. I’m sure all of us can think of times when we didn’t expect the member of staff to go the extra mile. What they are actually doing is they are displaying emotional intelligence. Those people we encounter who are listening actively, they are really focussing on who we are, and they have the skill to pick up on the emotions that are coming from us as customers. They are delivering something that is hugely meaningful which is what makes things stand out.

Emotional Intelligence is important in Customer Experience because we know that customers are more loyal when they have an emotional connection with the brand and a member of staff displaying the emotional intelligence skill is more likely to create that emotional connection.

The skill influences all staff. That means ‘office-based’ operations, ‘strategic people’ as well as the people on the front line. We talk a lot about this on the course. We all need the skill of emotional intelligence because customers want to feel valued and special and so do our colleagues.  When we create an emotional connection with our colleagues they are more likely to want to make the changes customers want.

Is it difficult to constantly exceed customer expectations?

This is going to be ironic given the fact that my business is called ‘Exceed all Expectations’ [laughing]. Countless reports say that you shouldn’t try to exceed people’s expectations because it’s the law of diminishing returns. Which means that the more you do it, the more you have to raise the bar and it becomes too expensive and maybe even a bit ridiculous.

It’s simple. It’s about human connection. I know for a fact that I’ve gone to places repeatedly because they will remember what I really like, they will make things easy for me and they often do things that make my life easier. Now that isn’t exceeding expectations, but that is making me feel good and making me feel valued. And if I have a choice, I will pick them, because of how they make me feel.

You are teaching a new online course titled Applied Customer Experience & Emotional Intelligence with accreditation from Pearson Business School starting on 17th September. What is the problem this programme solves? What are the challenges we are facing when it comes to customer experience?

First of all, some people join the programme to validate what they know. They feel like they need some external recognition of the work they do. They see a problem in not being recognised as having a truly valuable skill. These participants have been working in CX for a number of years and when they get the certificate, it’s like a rubber stamp! I know what that feels like – I took the Emotional Intelligence course for the same reason. Nothing like getting a rubber stamp from Dr. Goleman!

The second thing is, some people who work in CX don’t always have the language and don’t have the models to be able to change the conversation in their organisations. This is a problem as they sometimes find it hard to connect to some people across the business. I’ve had previous participants on this course who have been promoted because they think they have changed the conversation. They’ve started bringing in neuroscience, behavioural science and psychology to their internal discussion, they started talking a different language and it started to get them more attention and more influence.

And the last problem and I think it’s a big one. I have spoken to a number of CX authors about this. Some of the methods CX professionals use to learn how to do CX prevent them from thinking for themselves. So, we solve that problem by teaching models and techniques and blending this with talks from practitioners so that people can think for themselves, rather than just trying to shoehorn a particular solution from another company which would never work for theirs.

How exactly is the course structured?

There are a number of different learning methods included in this course. The first thing is, every Thursday we have a 90-minute conversation about theories, models and ideas, where all of the participants join in and learn from one another.

The second thing we do is on a Saturday. We have a deeper dive session on the weekend for an hour.  We ask more controversial questions here, for example – Is empathy dead? Surely rational compassion is better?”. These are optional sessions.

The third essential part of the course is access to resources. We have our recordings, articles, book references [you get a core text to work from when you join the course too] and papers so there is plenty of supporting evidence to review.

To receive the Professional Certificate, participants should complete a final assessment. How this is completed is completely up to the participant – they can decide exactly what they want to write about. The key reason for this work to ensure that the things they have learned can be joined together and remembered.

Each Thursday we cover a different CX topic. Week one is Psychology in customer experience, we then move onto Business cases and actionable measurement. Employee engagement (and org structures) are critical so we cover this in week three. We’re then ready to go into Emotional Intelligence, memory & self-awareness. EI is a big topic, so we cover Emotional Intelligence in action the following week too. The week after we cover Customer Journey mapping and then Customer Journey mapping as a catalyst for change. Then it’s time for some invaluable advice on Voice of the customer programmes and finally we talk about Setting yourself up for success – (Free personal insight reports and learn how to really Remote Work from an expert!). This is really important to me personally – I think that people in CX are often not heard and so this final topic enables people to think about their presence and how the adoption of emotional intelligence could make them more effective.

How often are your expectations exceeded?

That’s an interesting one! What I’ve found since COVID is that my expectations have been exceeded more often than not. I think that’s because people are listening more, paying more attention to what I have said. They seem to be able to do things they were not able to do before. Make decisions. Send me communications with ease. While people have been forced out of their offices they have found a way to do a 5-year project over 6 months because there was a need and urgency to it. And these projects deliver massive benefits to their customers. Companies have installed new phone lines, they have improved their online communication and equipped people with the tools to make decisions faster! We’ll see what happens to my expectations in the New Year!


Sandra Radlovacki

Sandra Radlovacki

Sandra Radlovacki is Assistant Editor at Customer Experience Magazine.




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