Customer service reps are problem solvers. The good ones do it instinctively. A customer contacts them with an issue and the rep quickly jumps into action to fix it.
Perhaps they do it too well. In their haste to solve the problem quickly, they frequently miss one of the customer’s needs.
Customers often don’t mention this need directly. It takes careful observation to notice it. Unfortunately, this hidden need is also the most important. It needs to be addressed if you want that customer to be happy with the service they’ve received.
The Two Basic Needs
Customers have two basic needs.
The first need is rational. This is what they want done. It could be fixing a billing error, answering a product question, or providing technical support.
The second need is emotional. This is how the customer wants to feel about the service they’re receiving.
Emotional needs are often hidden. A customer with a billing problem will clearly say, “I have a billing problem,” but they’re unlikely to say, “This billing problem is making me anxious and I’d like you to help me feel better about it.”A good customer service representative must recognize the customer’s anxiety, express empathy, and help the customer feel less anxious.
Daniel Goleman is credited for coining the term emotional hijacking in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Matters More Than IQ.
When someone’s emotions get highly aroused (like an angry customer), those emotions can hijack the rational part of the brain. A normally smart and reasonable person suddenly can’t think straight.
You may have seen irrational behavior with upset customers. They exaggerate about the size of the issue. They blame you personally for the problem even when it’s clear you had nothing to do with it. They have difficulty accepting reasonable solutions.
This makes it important to address emotional needs before handling rational needs. You’ll find it difficult to work with a customer on solving their problem (the rational need) while their emotions are inflamed.
Even mild negative emotions leave a lasting impression with customers. In a 2011 Bain study of airline flight delays and cancellations, researchers found that the way the delay or cancellation was handled had a much bigger impact on customer perception than the event itself.
Serving Emotional Needs
Customer service professionals need skills and resources to address their customers’ emotional needs.
The primary skills are listening, empathy, and control.
Listening is more difficult than it seems. Overeager customer service professionals often jump to conclusions and stop listening when a customer explains their problem. Listening requires the ability to focus attention on the customer, ask clarifying questions, and suspend judgement.
Empathy is another essential skill. It involves understanding the other person’s emotions and then taking steps to validate how that person is feeling. It could be a simple apology or a few kind words, but empathy has to be sincere and heartfelt.
Control is the third skill. An angry customer can cause our own emotions to flare up by triggering our natural flight or fight instinct . This instinct makes listening and empathizing much more difficult.
Employees also need resources to serve their customers’ emotional needs.
Interpretation services provide a good example. Language barriers can make it difficult to listen to customers. In many cases, it can only lead to the customer’s frustration.
Having an interpreter readily available can help. The customer feels heard so their emotions are less inflamed. And, the employee is able to understand the customer, so they’re better able to address the customer’s issue without making it worse.