By Howard Lax
February 3, 2018
Emotional connections are at the heart of enduring or loyal customer relationships, as well as employee engagement. The difference between fleeting transactional customer interactions and experiences that leave a lasting impression – whether positive or negative – is whether the experience strikes an emotional chord with the customer. No matter how well executed and delivered, interactions that leave no emotional imprint are eminently forgettable, while those that stir emotional responses shape more enduring memories.
Given the importance of emotions in decision making and how people (in both B2C and B2B settings) interact with, respond to and behave towards companies they use or decide not to use and where they work, it’s time for firms to assess their own emotional intelligence.
The concept of Emotional intelligence (EI or EQ for Emotional quotient) is a popular measure or description of the emotional skills and awareness of people. Daniel Goleman, who popularized the concept, identified five components of EI. For business applications, I see four key aspects to EI:
- The most basic is simply the awareness that people are emotional beings and that, while a company is not a feeling, emotional entity, there is an emotional component to the way a firm presents itself and its products and services to the market and its employees. A company projects “feelings,” as interpreted by stakeholders, in everything from its branding, imagery and packaging to its advertising, communications, PR and public outreach.
- Awareness of emotions is foundational; next is the ability to differentiate between and accurately identify emotions. This isn’t just labeling a sentiment positive or negative. That’s a start, but anger, frustration, disappointment and fear all are negative emotions – and they are quite different. Ditto on the positive side of the scale with regards to love, pleasant surprise, trust and joy.
- The next step up the EI ladder is responding to the feelings of stakeholders, that is displaying empathy and replying or acting in a manner that is emotionally appropriate to the feelings of the stakeholder. At a bare minimum this means acknowledging the feelings of customers and employees and trying to react in a manner that is sensitive to those feelings.
- Finally, and here it’s a tightrope walk between adaptation and manipulation, the firm needs to adjust to the emotional landscape (adapt) and/or try to influence (we call that marketing) or even control (that is, manipulate) the emotional reactions of customers and employees as a way of motivating desired behaviors.
Although perhaps seemingly rudimentary, awareness is anything but universal in the business community. While all marketers will raise their hands in agreement that people are emotional beings, they often are overruled by more senior leaders who cite their firm/industry/products as the exception: we are the industry leader; emotions don’t apply in B2B settings; our products and people are the best . . . Instead of appealing to the emotional needs of customers and illustrating how their products/services meet those emotional needs they default to an over-emphasis on “rational” performance criteria: expertise, quality, differentiation that says my product/service is objectively better.
While awareness of the emotional nature of consumers is on the rise, recognizing the emotional projections of the company is an alien idea to many business leaders. Obviously a firm is not an emotional organism with autonomous feelings. Whether intentional or not, however, a company projects “feelings” that affect its stakeholders, and firms need to be far more introspective about the emotional messages they are conveying in every touch they have with customers, prospects, employees and other stakeholders.
Differentiate and Identify
How do customers and employees feel? If you accept the premise that (1) your company wants to encourage or motivate certain behaviors on the part of customers and employees and (2) emotions motivate behavior, then the conclusion is unavoidable that (3) you need to at least try to measure and understand customer and employee feelings. (BTW, if you reject the premise that emotions motivate behavior, you are reading this piece by mistake; please stop reading now.)
People express their feelings in numerous ways: what they say, what they write, pictures they take or create, how they evaluate, the tone of their voice, their facial and body expressions and their autonomous physiological responses. There are pros and cons to every approach to measuring emotions (see http://customerthink.com/measuring-emotions-for-cx-and-ee-and-anything-else/) and no one approach will meet every need.
The approach with the most universal applications and practicality almost certainly is in the analysis of what people say and write. Between open-ended comments (both solicited and unsolicited), social media, telephone and chat interactions, reviews and other sources of unstructured text there is a wealth of content that can be mined for its emotional content. But it’s critical to go beneath the surface of the simple positive/negative, good/bad distinction and to distinguish between different positive and negative feelings. It also is equally important to determine when the stakeholder is projecting no emotional connection and is essentially yawning about your firm.
Empathy analytics, a term I borrow from Lana Novikova, CEO at Heartbeat Ai Technologies, implies both differentiating and identifying emotions, as well as understanding how to express empathy in communicating and responding to customers and employees (and others). Crafting an appropriate response first necessitates identifying how employees and customers feel. This punctuates the need for identifying and differentiating between emotions and not simply relying on a positive/negative distinction.
Expressing empathy requires acknowledging the feelings of people – and it’s impossible to acknowledge those feelings if you haven’t identified the feelings in the first place. This is why the closed-loop survey feedback process of many firms falls short. Rather than identifying the feelings being expressed, they rely on a cut-off score on a survey question (typically the NPS question) to trigger a response. While this certainly is better than not responding to a problem, this engenders a mechanical, not an empathetic response. This approach, moreover, almost always is limited to responding to very poor numerical ratings, while people often have multiple feelings that cannot be captured in a simple score.
Platforms for pushing outbound communications face a similar challenge: how do you empathetically communicate with customers without having a sense of their feelings in the first place? In many, if not most, instances when customers and employees communicate with your firm they are telling you in some manner how they feel. The questions is: are you reading those feelings and responding empathetically?
Adapt and Influence
Marketing can best be defined as the effort to influence the behavior of others. I like to think of it as motivating (or, as the case may be, de-motivating) people to behave in a certain manner. At its most benign, some will see this as the company adapting to the reality that customers and employees are emotional and adjusting everything it does to meet the emotional needs of stakeholders. This is the pure empathetic perspective. At the other extreme are those who will paint this as an effort to exploit the knowledge of people’s emotions to manipulate their behavior. This is the Machiavellian view.
It is in your company’s self-interest to be empathetic in dealing with stakeholders. Quite frankly, it also is in the best interest of stakeholders that companies act with a measure of emotional intelligence, even if it is purely for the firm’s financial gain.
The Emotionally Intelligent Firm
A company does not have feelings. But it interacts with stakeholders – customers and employees in particular – who are inherently emotional. While companies do not have emotions per se, everything the company does projects emotional content, even if only in the eyes (and hearts and minds) of stakeholders. Oh, and all of the people who work at and act on behalf of the firm have feelings.
The emotionally intelligent firm will
- acknowledge the emotional nature of interactions with customers and employees and recognize that there is an emotional dimension to everything the company does,
- strive to turn this awareness of emotions into an understanding of emotions by identifying and distinguishing between the different feelings stakeholders express,
- try to react empathetically to customers and employees, acknowledging and validating their emotions, and
- work to adapt to the reality of emotional decision making in all of their initiatives from the start, as opposed to only reacting to the feelings stakeholders project.
I know the “soft stuff” can be a hard sell. I’m not calling for the creation of a Chief Happiness Officer. But let’s go back to the premise: relationships with customers and employees and other stakeholders hinge on the emotional glue. As such, emotionally intelligent firms that recognize, internalize and act on this understanding will have a competitive advantage over those who might be described as emotionally ignorant.