Why customer emotion is more important than ever - and how to respond
Research indicates that emotion is the most important component of the customer experience. And organisations cannot afford to overlook its importance any more.
As lockdowns around the world lift, and businesses tentatively prepare to ease back into normality, the reality is that customer behaviour will not revert to pre-pandemic habits for some time - if at all.
In particular, a sense of heightened anxiety is one trend that will reside for some time yet.
In Delineate’s June research report, Unlocking change: How consumer behaviours in lockdown are evolving, it found that anxiety remained the overriding emotion when consumers were asked how they felt.
This anxiety is being channeled in many ways, with research by Shepper suggesting that of 500 supermarkets polled across the UK, over a quarter (26%) have reported incidences of staff abuse from customers during the pandemic.
But while the anxiety is anticipated to ease off over time, and indeed Delineate’s data suggests this may already be happening, it doesn’t disguise the fact that as lockdown restrictions are lifted, many consumers will rely on brands for reassurance during their service interactions, and require understanding and empathy.
Despite this urgent need for greater empathy and emotional understanding, the importance of emotion during customer interactions has always been an important - if often neglected - component of customer experience.
Research conducted by Ian Jacobs, principal analyst at Forrester, has concluded that there are three main drivers for customers’ perception of their experience with brands:
Effectiveness – does the experience deliver value to customers?
Ease – how difficult is it to get value from the experience?
Emotion – do customers feel good about the experience?
And Forrester has suggested that of the three drivers, emotion is the largest across all of the two-dozen vertical industries that it looked at.
“Ease and effectiveness aren’t quite as straightforward as brands wish they were, but they are certainly better understood inside brands,” says Ian Jacobs, principal analyst at Forrester. “Brands understand effectiveness - whether the experience delivers value to customers – and especially in customer care. Ease - how difficult it is to get value from the experience – we are just wrapping our heads around, and there has been more focus on the last couple of years. But emotion… There is a reason that you see survey research suggesting that consumers would rather have a root canal than call into a contact centre, and it is because we are ignoring the emotional component.”
He continues: “In the world of customer service, emotion is almost an unspoken word. We don’t talk about emotion in thinking about how we measure success, or how we train our agents or how we measure the quality of an individual interaction that a customer has with the brand’s customer service team.”
And this often translates into the nature of the service delivered to customers.
“Think about the last time you had a web chat with a customer service agent. Did the representative you were dealing with express empathy, and treat you like a human being, or did they treat you like a case? Did the brand give you a case and ticket number - or did they call you by your name? Did they value your time – meaning they didn’t make you repeat things that you had already told the brand in one way or another when they should have been solving your problem? All of these things are emotional components of service and they are all controllable by the brand. But they are also things that brands don’t really think about.”
But with emotion and empathy now more important than ever, it has become something that organisations can no longer ignore.
“Emotion is clearly the main contributor to a customer’s perception of a brand,” emphasises Amanda Halpin, EMEA strategic solutions lead at Genesys. “Emotions are ingrained in our memories and influence your decision-making process in the future. It’s therefore in our nature to avoid experiences that make us feel disappointed, angry, short-changed or negative.
“For example, a customer contacts their bank to request an overdraft extension. It’s relatively easy to obtain the overdraft from the bank and the value of having additional cash flow is obvious. However, if the bank advisor makes the customer feel bad for needing the overdraft and lacks empathy during the conversation, this will undoubtedly change their perception of that brand.
“From the contact centre’s perspective, when you create engagements based on empathy, customers feel remembered, heard and understood. This is how you forge stronger connections, earn your customers’ trust and loyalty and see better business results.”
So what practical steps can organisations take?
Forrester concludes that there are three areas that can be targeted to improve emotional understanding - people/processes; metrics; and technology.
People and processes
Firstly, there are the people and processes pieces to address, which effectively amount to hiring the right people, training them appropriately, and then freeing them up to focus on emotion, while also exploring what processes can be rolled out to support them. This requires that organisations reconfigure their hiring, training and retention practices to not only focus on practical attributes such as typing speed and low accuracy rate, but also factor in emotional capabilities.
At the recruitment level, for instance, brands should be amending hiring material to emphasise the desirability of people who have the ability to build emotional bridges to the client. Organisations could actively seek out those with higher emotional intelligence (EQ). EQ has been proven to contribute greatly to the success of individuals and organisations - those with higher EQ tend to outperform all others with similar intellectual knowledge; EQ helps you to relate more skillfully with fellow employees and customers; EQ helps you to control your behaviour and emotions better; and EQ helps you to be more self-aware and prevent being blinded by problems that increase customer effort.
Elsewhere, brands should also explore how they can update the content of their training programmes to reflect a greater emphasis on emotion.
Metrics to focus on emotion
There is also the measurement and metrics piece associated with customer emotion – something that has largely been overlooked by organisations. Indeed, it is little surprise that there has been a dearth of activity around customer emotion as of yet when it is yet to translate into the metrics by which customer service is driven.
“If we continue to look at effectiveness metrics as part of the overall dashboard that judges whether a contact centre manager is successful or not, with perhaps some ease metrics just starting to emerge too, then that is what they are going to manage,” says Jacobs. “And you know it is possible to be incredibly effective while still being completely tone deaf - so we really need to change the metrics that drive our service organisations.”
Being able to demonstrate that a contact centre has driven better Net Promoter Scores (NPS) is great - but really only where that contact centre manager is actually being judged on NPS. Because if they are being judged on call handling time, and their 20% improvement in NPS was accompanied by an 11% increase in handle time, it would not be a trade that the manager would be prepared to make. So organisations need to think long and hard about how the emotional component will translate into the performance metrics of their staff.
“If you think back to the debate in the media between the CEOs of United and Delta, they both recognise that emotion is an issue - but they disagree about how to deal with it, or even if they can deal with it. Now imagine that the United Airlines’ board had in some way put an emotion metric in their CEO’s performance - he would all of a sudden start to figure out that there are ways that he can influence emotion!”
Technology solutions and tools are also coming to the aid of organisations in need of better understanding and improving emotional experiences.
Brendan Dykes, director of product marketing at Genesys, notes: “To show empathy requires two key factors: a deep knowledge of the customer and their journey and an ability to hear and understand where they are at right now. Technology supports this by providing true insights into where the customer is in their journey and presenting this in a timely and clear manner during the conversation. It also provides the opportunity to support the agent with insights into what the customer is really saying, understanding context, emotion and insight through deep understanding of both the conversation’s content and its sentiment.”
Real-time tools are available to analyse calls for emotional tone, for instance identifying whether the customer started the call neutral but is now getting upset, and in the event that there is a problem, the agent is provided with real-time cues to help them think about and demonstrate empathy for the customer. For example, the agent could be notified that she is talking over the customer, or she could be reminded that she needs to let the customer finish their sentence before they start talking.
“It is usually things that seem really simple, but in the heat of the moment, when the agent is dealing with a frustrated customer, and their own frustration level may be rising, they need this kind of external prompting to help them to remember how to provide emotionally-savvy service to the customer,” explains Jacobs.
Post-interaction surveys are a quick and easy way to measure how the customer felt after the interaction.
Forrester’s report notes that US insurance provider Humana has demonstrated how its agents being served emotional cues by real-time analytics tools achieve a 28% higher Net Promoter Score than agents that don’t – a significant difference in customer perceptions of the emotional experience.
Elsewhere, tools can also help organisations to get a greater understanding of customer interactions and gain insight into how and where improvements can be made.
“Post-interaction surveys are a quick and easy way to measure how the customer felt after the interaction. Once you have a baseline measure of your customers emotional state, you can apply technology to increase your customers positive emotional rate,” explains Halpin. “From a digital perspective, understanding when’s the right moment to offer a chat engagement and enabling the agent with the customer’s context will allow them to personalise the conversation, reduce vent time and ultimately make it a more seamless experience for the customer. This in turn will reduce customer frustration (negative emotions) and increase positive feelings towards the organisation.”
Empathy training can also be improved by applying analytics to historical data. Speech analytics and text analytics tools are already commonly used to identify problems with the agent performance, but call recordings can also be analysed to identify emotional markers. These can help organisations to understand how customers react to specific agent actions, and identify which actions lead to negative emotions.
This can then be used to train agents to avoid those specific actions and the subsequent negative emotions in the future – either through agent training, or via real-time tools that deliver cues during the course of the interaction.
And thanks to the cloud these kinds of solutions aren’t the sole preserve of large enterprises or those with significant financial clout.
“Historically it was the large enterprises with deep pockets, large IT budgets and large technical teams who could take advantage of the latest innovation,” Dykes notes. “The cloud has changed that. Any organisation can now access and consume the latest of technologies. This has levelled up the playing field, it has democratised access to the latest tools. It is now the ability to best apply the technology in a business scenario that will differentiate the service level offered by organisations.”
Halpin adds: “The great thing is with contact centre cloud technology, it’s really easy to test these technologies without having to break the bank. At Genesys, we have customers of all sizes using different flavours of these technologies.”
Emotion’s role in 2020 and beyond
Research by HBR has demonstrated that even a small increase of loyalty by 5% can increase profits by a minimum of 25%. Understanding customer emotions has always enabled organisations to deliver empathy and more memorable experiences at crucial points during the customers decision-making process, and ultimately build trust and loyalty. But in a world still coming to terms with the traumas of the coronavirus pandemic, empathy and emotional support have never been so important to building customer relationships - and rebuilding society.
“In a matter of months, society has changed,” concludes Halpin. “Many have lost their loved ones unexpectedly and haven’t been given the opportunity to say goodbye properly. Economically, it’s been a rollercoaster with many household brands closing their doors for the last time and millions globally losing their jobs. Empathy needs to be shown across the board.
“From a B2B perspective, compassion and empathy needs to be shown from suppliers to businesses who are struggling with cashflow due to a reduction in footfall, especially in the tourism and service industries. Consumers also need to be shown empathy because if they aren’t, this will create a negative emotional memory and they’ll switch providers.
“In my opinion, emotion is the key to surviving beyond 2020.”
On August 13 at 2PM BST, MyCustomer will be hosting a virtual roundtable featuring experts such as Adrian Swinscoe, Natalie Petouhoff and Peter Dorrington, where they will explore how organisations can deliver greater emotional support and empathy in service interactions. Register for your place now.
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 20 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined MyCustomer in 2007.