Why Contact Centers Need Agents With Emotional Intelligence

To become relationship-centric customer experience teams, managers need to find employees who understand how to make human connections.

Why Contact Centers Need Agents with Emotional Intelligence

This year marks the 20th anniversary of Joe Pine and Jim Gilmore’s influential article in Harvard Business Review, “Welcome to the Experience Economy.” Back in 1998, the authors proposed that memorable customer experiences qualify as a distinct economic offering, transcending the mere transactions of goods or services. Today, the most successful companies clearly put the quality of their customer experience (CX) first. In doing so, these companies build upon individual customer experiences to establish deep, lasting customer relationships.

Despite this shift in business strategy, some customer service teams still think of themselves as simply providing a transactional service. In a survey of 2,600 service leaders, managers, and agents worldwide conducted by Salesforce Research, 70% of respondents said their companies are now more focused on “creating deeper customer relationships.” But what about the other 30%?

As the benefits of focusing on CX become increasingly obvious, more and more customer service teams must adapt. However, in order to create relationship-centric customer experience teams, managers need to be looking for different qualities in potential contact center employees.



of consumers say they’ve switched brands because of a bad experience.

State of the Connected Customer, 2nd Edition, Salesforce Research

A New Kind of Agent for a More Relational World

Integrating service throughout the customer journey with a company, that is, in the pre-purchase, purchase, and post-purchase process to provide a more customer-centric approach to customer service demands a new kind of agent — namely, one who knows how to cultivate and deepen human relationships. The internet empowers customers in unprecedented ways, giving them the ability to contact a business through a handheld device as easily as they email, text, or call a close family member. No matter what channel they choose, customers expect to receive a human, personalized response on the other end. Because many customer interactions happen via a screen, it’s more important than ever to infuse a genuine human element into every communication.

This dynamic digital environment is challenging for many contact centers. While agents have more technology at their fingertips to help them meet new expectations, they also have more responsibility to maintain the quality of the relationship with each customer interaction. Just think of the power a single corporate tweet can have to win or lose customers on a large scale. Each engagement is a link in the chain of the customer relationship, and it only takes one weak link to break the chain for good. By the same token, creating an experience that goes beyond a transactional approach to service can strengthen the chain.

For example, if someone calls to book a hotel room for a few nights, an informed and thoughtful agents can provide more than just a room reservation by suggesting great restaurants and activities in the area. In addition to listening for small cues in the conversation, agents can lean on artificial intelligence for suggestions. With these insights, the agent can then make a note on the account, ensuring that the hotel provides the customer’s favorite coffee or their preferred newspaper in the morning. It’s these kinds of interactions that lead to loyalty for future bookings. By focusing on building the relationship, thousands of dollars in future revenue can be generated for the company, not to mention additional referrals for friends and business associates who might be joining on future trips.

Because today’s customer service agents essentially hold the future of the customer relationship in their hands with every interaction, businesses need to place greater importance on the agents they employ. Whether a company is  sourcing candidates for marketing, sales, or service, it needs people with more than just a basic technical skill set. Companies need employees who know how to relate to customers in personal, one-on-one, human terms. So how should you go about hiring, training, and retaining such conscientious people?

The Importance of Hiring for Emotional Intelligence

The term “emotional intelligence” was popularized in the mid-1990s, and the concept quickly spread to become an important part of business leadership vocabulary. Any candidate might look good on paper (or on LinkedIn), but does the person have the emotional maturity, warmth, and sensitivity to help develop the solid, long-term customer relationships that businesses need in today’s world?

Contact center employees are engaged in an increasing variety of tasks. They’re answering phones, managing online chat, responding to email, maintaining CRMs, or confirming the responses of AI chatbots. Regardless of the task, all these roles require robust social skills encompassing empathy, self-awareness, clarity of motive, and emotional management.  

If an employee is just rattling off a script without caring about the person on the other end of the line, the interaction can feel shallow and dismissive to the customer. Service agents need to know when it’s time to go off script. Companies should still establish rules for handling common situations, but if the goal is to create deeper connections, a certain amount of flexibility is needed. A good customer experience depends on employees helping customers in an authentic, caring way. So, rather than having set rules, we recommend providing your agents with the following guidelines:

  • Customers want to be heard. Phone-support agents need to take the time to listen rather than talking over the other person. Listening and validating the customer’s concerns will build trust and strengthen the company brand.

  • Customers want to be validated. It can be helpful for agents to restate the problem in a clear, thoughtful way so the customer knows that their concerns are acknowledged and understood.

  • Customers want to feel valued. Contact center agents need to be empowered with a few creative ways to make sure that customers feel it. Something as simple as a small credit on the customer’s account could retain their loyalty and lead to many years of purchases in the future.

  • Customers want to trust your company. Agents need to have the empathy and integrity to follow through with things that are promised. Instead of saying what a customer wants to hear to get them off the line, agents need to make it their personal mission to ensure that a customer’s issue is resolved.

Can any employee learn these skills? Possibly. But it helps if agents have a high degree of emotional intelligence to start with. Instead of focusing primarily on candidates’ technical skills, hiring managers need to put a premium on potential employees’ relational capacities, both spoken and written. To help set employees up for success, emotional intelligence tests should be considered before onboarding, or even internally customized tests developed by hiring managers and service leaders. These could be based on common customer issue-and-resolution role-playing scenarios. Results would uncover areas of focus for initial — and ongoing — training, helping to increase employee success and boost retention.

Without emotional intelligence, even the brightest, most technically skilled service agent will have a hard time creating a great experience for customers, and business performance will suffer. For the contact center to make the transformation from customer service to customer experience, companies needs employees with emotional intelligence who know when to bend the rules to build loyalty.




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