Is Emotional Intelligence Key To Outstanding Customer Service?


Working in customer support can leave you feeling like an unrecognized or unsung hero. Praise is often in short supply and there is a lack of awareness about areas of responsibility and how much work the support team does.

Within a brief conversation the agent is expected to engage each customer, fix their problem and move on swiftly to help others.

It’s as if they’re expected to pull answers from an infinite memory bank and come up with instant answers. Never mind, they might need to do a quick double check of a help center article, research the problem, or test run the solution themselves.

That’s for technical knowledge. But there’s a lot more to it than giving a friendly response to problem after problem in your support queue.

You’re not sitting around finding 50 constructive ways to say “Sorry”. As an agent you are identifying the problem, taking control of the situation, and actively leading the customer to a solution.

Is empathy the essential customer service personality trait?

When companies talk about important customer service qualities or skills, empathy comes up a lot. Previous articles have considered it as one of the key qualities in customer service.

But what determines empathy? It’s not easy; it’s part of the bigger system of Emotional Intelligence (sometimes written in shorthand as EQ or EI).

Why Emotional Intelligence is a customer service requirement

One of the most well-known authors about this field is Daniel Goleman who defines emotional intelligence as the capacity for recognizing our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships.

Sounds like empathy doesn’t it? Let’s dig in further.

Emotional intelligence falls into 5 dimensions:

In Goleman’s model, there’s a hierarchy among the five dimensions of emotional intelligence. This means some qualities and traits are a foundational platform for others:

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The first 3 dimensions add up to what Goleman calls “personal competence”.

  • Self-Awareness & Self-Esteem
  • Self-Regulation
  • Motivation


The other 2 dimensions add up to our “social competence”.

  • Empathy
  • Social skills


Self-awareness is a customer service strength

According to Goleman’s EQ model, a person’s emotional intelligence starts with two types of awareness.

  • The first expression of awareness is Self-Awareness, which is awareness of your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, habits and values. Gradually, this leads to greater Self-Esteem.
  • The second form of awareness is sensitivity to others’ feelings and needs. This grows into a sense of Empathy.

It’s saying: you can’t really understand your customer’s pain unless you have a good understanding of yourself.

That sounds a bit abstract doesn’t it? Let’s look at a scenario to better understand.

Look at what this customer support agent from Frozenbyte did for this customer

Frozenbyte develop games that can be played online. The online platform you can connect with other players on is called Steam. It also allows you to host your games without needing to insert the CD to load the game, but to do this you need an activation code that is normally included within the box of the game.

When Eduardo’s delivery arrived, he could not find an activation code to register his game on Steam. It seems Amazon were selling a different version of the game.

After an unsuccessful attempt to get help from Amazon, Eduardo reached out to ask for help from Frozenbyte.

customer service qualites empahty over email

This is a great example of the support agent understanding the customer’s pain and helping Eduardo achieve satisfaction.

It would have been easy for Joel on the Frozenbyte team to dismiss this request under the grounds of corporate policies (i.e. to not allow him to hand out activation codes). But Joel bypassed the red-tape and gave Eduardo the code anyway.

Joel shows clear understanding of the customer’s pain. He knew Eduardo had already jumped through so many hoops to try and get the game to work the way he’d always played Frozenbyte games. Joel’s actions turned Eduardo into a repeat customer. Without the key, Eduardo would be unlikely tobuy another game from Frozenbyte.

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The situation turned into a win-win for everyone. Eduardo can play the game the way he wants, and Frozenbyte get praised on Reddit for excellent customer service.

How this helps you deal with a dissatisfied customer

I know you’ve had those days when the customer says the last thing you want to hear and something inside of you flips. You feel the urge to lash out uncontrollably. (Don’t worry you’re not alone).

But you resist. This is the first expression of awareness. It allows you to self-regulate; to direct your behavior and choose your responses to other people — to not be a slave to unconscious emotional reactions.

The second kind of awareness is directed towards others. It draws on greater Empathy and Self-Regulation, and it emerges as improved Social Skills.

It allows you to take control of your emotions, and guide the customer to a solution (even through gritted teeth!).

These two expressions of awareness in a customer support agent create an opportunity to craft an amazingly helpful response.

You’ll know how to personalize your response and truly connect to the customer’s pain.

You’ll drop the phrase, “I apologize for the inconvenience” because you know the customer isn’t looking for half-hearted canned line, or an excuse. They’re looking for you to understand their perspective, and truly be sorry.

As Ed Yong put it: “Empathy depends on your ability to overcome your own perspective, appreciate someone else’s, and step into their shoes.” And that means being able to harness the situation, whether that’s deciding on the best way to respond to feature suggestions or hearing out the angry customer and guiding them to an effective solution.

Once you and your team do that consistently, you’ll be on your way to providing incredible customer support.

Support teams are the unsung heroes of customer service

Customer support is a hard job. Not only do you need technical knowledge, you also are required to respond to your customers with kindness and compassion.

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When you explore Daniel Goleman’s model of EQ, you realize that support agents are up there as the most intelligent people we know — at least emotionally! This compassion is demonstrated everyday by support teams all over the world who are customers’ advocate and help to solve their problems. No matter how angry or frustrated the customer is, it is the agents with the best self-control that will give back-to-back amazing support.

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