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Intelligent Service

Friday, July 1, 2011 - 08:18

Research into customers' emotional intelligence has implications for staff training.

Superior customer service has long been recognised as a source of competitive advantage for service providers.

This is never truer than when things go wrong. When customers complain or are disadvantaged is the time when superior customer service really has to work. If a company can't manage a customer when something goes wrong, that customer will rarely come back, moreover, they will tell everyone they know what happened.

Recent research undertaken at Macquarie University proves that the emotional intelligence (EI) of customers will determine how they respond when things go wrong with a service. The research reveals that EI is a reliable predictor of how customers will deal with stressful circumstances. In fact, their EI will not only determine the strategies they deploy, but will help explain how some customers achieve successful service outcomes, while others do not.

Emotional intelligence

The concept of EI is relatively new, but is described as the ability to perceive, access and generate emotions so as to assist thought, the ability to understand emotions and emotional knowledge, and the ability to reflectively regulate emotions to cope with environmental demands and pressures.

In light of this, it is reasonable to speculate that individuals with a higher EI have a greater ability to regulate their own psychological state and, as a result, are more in control of managing stressful or unpleasant events. They are also more likely to try to eliminate the source of stress of an unpleasant experience and are better able to keep emotions within manageable bounds.

This is largely because they have a much higher tolerance for stress. They are also better able to cope with emotions such as anger and disappointment. High-EI customers can even find it in themselves to forgive service providers for a bad experience far easier than customers considered to have low EI. High-EI customers can also even remain loyal shoppers and go on to recommend your service to others despite the fact that their own experience was negative.

Service implications

These findings should prompt service providers to consider changing the way they train staff to deal with conflict resolution by recognising that not all customers need the same solution to a complaint. And while it is fair to suggest that actually detecting a customer's level of EI during the service interaction may be difficult, if not impossible, this shouldn't stop service providers from attempting to leverage the EI of their own employees.

Research shows that employees that have difficulty identifying and describing their own feelings may well have trouble managing not only their own, but also customers' emotional states. This could in turn restrict their capacity to deal with unhappy customers, which ultimately could affect your company's reputation.

Being sure you know who you're hiring, and what their emotional capabilities are, is part of the solution. Service providers could also go one step further by deploying their high-EI staff to the front line to deal with complaints.

Store managers might also consider setting up systems that, as soon as an issue arises, enable aggrieved customers to be reassured that the situation will be appropriately handled.

Measures to mitigate the negative effects of customers trying to solve the problem themselves should also be considered, such as implementing user-friendly refund procedures, removing red tape for customers to redress problems or dedicating specialist staff to help customers through the service recovery process.

Service providers determined to go even further could introduce remote sensing techniques such as voice inflection analysis, narrative prediction and rebuttal scripts that could be deployed across multiple customer channels to predict stress and emotional tension.

Whatever you decide, the research reinforces the importance for service managers to deal with the customer, not the service failure.


Professor Mark Gabbott is Executive Dean of Macquarie University's Faculty of Business and Economics.

Article based on 'Emotional intelligence as a moderator of coping strategies and service outcomes in circumstances of service failure'. The research was undertaken by Professor Mark Gabbott from Macquarie University with Dr Yelena Tsarenko and Dr Mok Wai Ho of Monash University. It involved the analysis of 283 questionnaires answered by a database of men and women who had previously agreed to complete online surveys in exchange for points that could be redeemed for incentives. They were asked to complete a survey designed on a scenario for a service failure, which described an initial service problem and a subsequent poor response by staff. Half the respondents had a degree, while 31.1 per cent had completed secondary level education.