The Role of Emotional Intelligence in Customer Experience

Marija Skobe-Pilley

June 28, 20248 min read

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Marija Skobe-Pilley, CX Thought Leader, highlights the importance of emotional intelligence (EI) in customer service through personal stories and her team's use of AI to understand customer needs. She shows how human connection and empathy, alongside AI, can greatly enhance customer experiences and loyalty. The article suggests that the best customer service combines AI insights with the indispensable human touch.

I love hearing ‘Hello Marija’ while entering my favourite Gail’s coffee shop after I order my latte en route, via the app. I don’t expect coffee baristas to know my name. I’m content with getting my latte and moving on with my day. However, I drive longer to get to this coffee shop because of the experience and ‘feel good’ I’m getting. I have the same coffee shop within walking distance from my home, but I choose to drive and get my latte - with a more welcoming experience.  

Also, I appreciate the experience when a customer service representative arranged a full refund for my car rental service. However, it was me who omitted to read the small letters T&Cs about the pick-up timing, it was me who hadn’t provided flight details for the car rental to track my delayed car, leaving without a car one late evening while travelling alone with kids. Surely, that was my oversight. I wasn’t sure how the AI chatbot would deal with it but it quickly provided a rep with a summary of what I was experiencing. The Customer Service Rep was so empathetic in understanding my disappointment and situation, approving a full refund. That empathetic response and outcome means I’m carrying on doing business with a company that understands and values me as a customer and is empowering their employees to advocate for consumers. 

In my Customer Success team, we started using Gen AI to extract the data, customer sentiment and tone of voice from the support tickets we’re receiving. Although the report doesn’t tell us customers’ emotions, it is incredible to see the insights around customers from their interaction with Support. In one case, we managed to see how most support tickets were related to the users being unsure how to use the feature and they were not getting desired results and started contacting Support as if there was a bug. After realising it’s an enablement issue, my team member suggested a call to take them through the platform. This kind suggestion resulted in a new superfan for us!  

My examples highlight a remarkable customer experience I received as a consumer. Human connection and empathy are surely making them ‘remarkable’ (as there are thousands of other options for the services I could have chosen). While advanced technologies or AI-powered processes are essential, the human element plays a critical role in building satisfaction and loyalty.  

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In the business landscape that is increasingly automated and AI-powered, companies are recognising that the human element might be a long-term differentiation in business. At the core of shaping positive customer experience (CX) is emotional intelligence (EI). In this article, I explore the case of EI as a differentiator in CX and suggest strategies for practicing EI in day-to-day activities.  

Table of Contents

The Case for Emotional Intelligence in Customer Experience 

The way customers feel after interacting with your company significantly influences their perception of your brand.  

According to a US study involving over 9000 consumers, the emotional response of customers is the most crucial factor in fostering consumer loyalty. Customers who enjoyed a positive experience were nearly five times more likely to trust the company and make additional purchases compared to those who had a negative experience.  Knowing that acquiring new customers costs 5x more than retaining existing ones, there’s a clear case for emphasizing activities that boost customer loyalty.  

Also, satisfied customers were ten times more likely to recommend the brand compared to those who were dissatisfied. 

By equipping your customer service team with strong emotional intelligence skills, they can better empathize with, understand, and address customer needs and emotions. This leads to enhanced customer satisfaction, improved brand perception, and strengthened customer loyalty. 

As businesses operate in increasingly globalized markets, emotional intelligence will help navigate cultural differences and create inclusive customer experiences. Empathy and social skills are essential for understanding and respecting diverse customer backgrounds and expectations. 

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Developing Emotional Intelligence 

People with high emotional intelligence (EI) can be open-minded, empathetic, and observant of the environment and audience, they can articulate their feelings, listen actively, and be genuinely helpful.  

Emotional intelligence can be developed with training and practice. Although valuable in any aspect of life or business, EI is especially invaluable in delivering outstanding customer experience.  

Investing in employees' emotional intelligence also contributes to their overall well-being. A workforce with high EI is likely to experience better job satisfaction, reduced stress, and improved mental health, leading to higher productivity and lower turnover rates. 

There are several key traits of people with high EI:  

  1. Self-awareness

They are self-aware enough to recognize their own emotions and their impact on other people’s thoughts and behaviors.  

Thinking of customer service representatives who are continuously receiving floors of complaints and inquiries, they need to be self-aware to  

  • recognize customers’ emotions behind the complaints 

  • remove personal feelings (as complaints are not intended for CS reps but for the product and company overall); and 

  • understand the impact their words and actions will have on customers’ overall outcome and satisfaction with the company 

 2. Self-regulation

Managing and expressing emotions in healthy and appropriate ways, controlling impulsive behaviors. 

Customers may not always be right or even polite. Still, CS representatives have to be able to maintain their composure, be patient with customers and refrain from any impulsive behaviors or words. Especially in situations when customers may become frustrated due to the inconvenience they are experiencing, providing a remarkable Customer Experience means treating customers with patience at any moment.   

How can leaders proactively protect and support the mental and emotional health of their customer service agents? Annette Franz, CX Thought Leader, emphasizes the importance of leaders treating their customer service agents with genuine care and stop viewing them as mere cogs in a wheel. Tune in to gain practical advice from Franz on how leaders can actively safeguard and promote the mental and emotional health of their teams.

3. Motivation

People with high emotional intelligence tend to be intrinsically motivated, setting and pursuing their goals with energy and persistence.  

What drives CS reps? What motivates them to provide an outstanding service and improve their performance? How motivated are they to go above and beyond in assisting their customers? Motivation is an individual trait, and every person would respond to these questions differently. However, CS reps must maintain motivation to assist customers with their best efforts rather than just ticking boxes and closing tickets.   

4. Empathy

It is said that empathy is walking in other people’s shoes. Understanding how other people might be feeling and seeing the world from their perspective.  

Without empathy and compassion, support and care are just words." – Vincent Washington, Vice-President, Unified-CXM Best Practices Group, Sprinklr

Such a crucial trait for providing a remarkable customer experience! One of the basic human needs is a need to be understood. In the case of CS reps, it is crucially important to empathize with customers, acknowledge how they are feeling, share how they would surely feel equally frustrated / discontent in their place….and then only take action to remedy situations. There’s a power in creating a space to acknowledge other people’s feelings. Can empathy be taught in customer service? Nate Brown, a leader in customer experience thinking, believes that while empathy can indeed be taught to customer service agents, the training process is time-consuming. He suggests a more efficient approach is to recruit individuals who naturally possess empathy. Discover Brown's thoughts on fostering empathy.

Speaking about developing empathy, and utilising AI makes me excited! If you’re in a customer-facing role, I would suggest you use AI to analyze your customer interactions, look for patterns, and provide prompts that read customers’ tone of voice and sentiment. Although I’d like us all to have amazing empathy skills, those need to be practized and AI is a wonderful companion to help us ‘read between the lines’.  

Simple tip: try running your client conversation through GenAI and ask specific questions, e.g. ‘Describe how a customer feels at the end of this conversation’, ‘Find clues that speak to their sentiment about our service’.  

5. Social skills

From active listening to strong verbal and non-verbal communication, people with high EI can build and manage meaningful relationships and move people in the desired direction.  

This is another must-have trait for customer experience professionals as they navigate customer communication and advocate for their customers internally within their own companies. 

These traits of Emotional Intelligence are essential for anyone in customer-facing roles as they significantly influence the quality of interactions with customers.  

Tips for Developing and Practicing EI 

As Emotional Intelligence (EI) is a set of skills and behaviors, some people will be naturally adept at certain areas. However, EI can be developed, learned, and enhanced.  

Here are some practical ways to practice EI daily:

  • Regularly seek feedback from peers and leaders 

  • Make feedback specific (e.g. How was my response to a customer, how did I handle this particular situation) 

  • Find a mentor outside your department or a company to gain a different perspective 

  • Observe how you behave in customer-facing situations 

  • Understand what motivates you 

  • Set personal performance goals and stick to your plans  

  • Acknowledge what people are saying 

  • Practice how you say things (be clear and concise) 

Wrap Up 

Emotional Intelligence (EI) is not just a buzzword; it is a fundamental component of delivering outstanding customer experiences. By fostering emotional intelligence within their teams, businesses can enhance customer interactions, build lasting relationships, and drive business success that drives loyal customers. As we move forward with technological advancements, especially with AI, we’ll see that outstanding Customer Experience will lay in the intersection of seamless AI-led technology with a personal human touch at the heart of every interaction.

Curious to learn how you can craft a human-centered CX? Listen to this episode of the CX-Wise podcast featuring Sally Mildren (CEO and Managing Partner of Boss Lady Consulting and ClarityPX), as she shares the underlying principles of putting human at the center of your customer experience goals.

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