Emotion at the Heart of the Customer Experience

The Emotional Decision Maker

The way we feel underlies almost all our decisions and actions, even ones that we think are rational and logical.  Social psychological research continues to reveal the emotional and seemingly irrational underpinnings of our choices, from the smallest purchase to the most major life change.  It is inevitable that the same emotional responses will lie at the heart of how we choose to interact with organisations.

The emotional basis for decision making allows us to understand why an organisation’s front-line service providers are key to influencing our decisions to become and remain customers of any organisation.  Our interaction with them creates an emotional response and sets a pattern for our interaction with the organisation.  It is the way that the people of an organisation make us feel that determines our most strongly held opinions about it.

Person to Person

Of course there are other factors in forming our opinions as customers – the organisation’s advertising and materials, what we hear about them in the media, our experience of their product and other people’s views to name a few.  But at its heart, every contact an individual has with an organisation, in whatever form, is a personal interaction.

No matter in what medium of communication ia, what we infer about the meaning behind the communication and the emotional response it creates in us, is largely the same as would occur in a conversation in person between two people.

As social animals we are continually interpreting and responding to the way that other people interact with us, even if that is only through some text on a website or a set of instructions.

We are able to detect nuances of tone and subtle inferences in any type of communication and our deepest emotional reaction shapes our behaviour without conscious awareness.  In fact, we can impute meaning to a complete lack of communication – for example, think what meanings we draw from an organisation’s repeated failure to answer the phone when we have a problem to discuss.

Although we are interacting with an organisation, to our social brain that only makes sense as a group of individuals: along with the product itself,  our interactions with the person we are speaking to is the foundation of almost all that we will come to feel about an organisation.

Above and Beyond Simple Emotional Response to Experience

Psychological research consistently finds that our emotions about someone or something create the conditions for their own existence, through cognitive processes called attentional and confirmation biases. 

That is, once we have started to feel a certain way about something, we will notice and pay particular attention to other information and evidence that supports the way we already feel.  Somehow we also manage to filter out or discount any information that might contradict how we feel, so our initial feelings become stronger and more firmly held without any justification by the actual evidence.

This can work on either a positive or a negative level.  If we begin to feel really positive about an organisation and its people, we are more likely to continue feeling that way even if the evidence doesn’t really justify it.

Similarly, if we are on the receiving end of a bad experience and we come away with a bad feeling about an organisation, we simply won’t notice the positive evidence that might challenge our current thinking.

Here the power and value of really good customer service interactions is evident.  Customer service provision that is unhelpful and in which the customer service provider comes across as disinterested or disrespectful of the customer’s emotional experience will create a set of feelings and beliefs about the organisation that will take great effort to reverse.

However, if a customer is made to feel like a valued and worthwhile person with valid needs and comes to believe that the organisation has his best interests at heart, this will be the beginning of an enduring and beneficial relationship for both parties.

When you consider the way we quickly form opinions and then seek to confirm them, rather than contradict them demonstrates all too clearly the vital importance of getting customer service right first time.

Bringing Emotions to the Table

Naturally we don’t enter into communications with customer service providers in a neutral emotional state.  Aside from the effect of our wider lives on our emotions, generally we are communicating with an organisation either because we need something or we have a problem and both of these create an emotional primer in us:  we expect and are ready to feel a particular set of emotions.

All this means that the very best customer service providers are those who understand others’ emotional responses  and who also have the drive to make other people feel better, either through resolving their problem, or by sending them away with a metaphorical smile on their face.

Generating enduring positive feeling about the organisation translates into customer loyalty, informal marketing and increased contact with the organisation.

In effect, it is the cornerstone of building positive customer relationships and those organisations that ensure that their frontline customer service providers have the ability and motivation to work with customers’ emotions will be those whose reputations go from strength to strength.


4 Comments to “Emotion at the Heart of the Customer Experience”

  1. HI!
    Your perspectives here (as indeed in so many of your posts) are spot on in relation to my experience from working with citizens using government services in Denmark, off-line as well as on-line. I find your remarks on the way people tend to “anthropomorphize” all communication, particularly interesting. In my experience they tend to ascribing it not only meaning, but also intention to most communication, and this intention may in turn be taken as reflection on the status and value of the individual him or herself. Would you happen to have any research-references to your points in this post? It would be most appreciated.

  2. Thank you very much for your kind comments Soren.

    It is good to hear that the ideas here on the blog are resonating with people – although I expect this means that they cause you at least some of the problems I write about!

    In writing about these issues I draw on my background in social psychology and occupational psychology and I find that areas such as cognitive social psychology are particularly useful in considering customer service.

    Using the web as a starting point for new research and current directions I look at sites such as http://bps-occupational-digest.blogspot.co.uk/ and http://bps-research-digest.blogspot.co.uk and then go to source papers or books wherever possible. I often cite these sources at the bottom of the post, particularly when I am discussing new results reported by academics, but in this case, rather unusually, I was arguing a more personal opinion case for emotions directing most of our service interactions, on the basis of a wide range of research that investigates different aspects of human behaviour.

    However, that said, work by psychologist like Elliot Aronson, Daniel Kahneman and Robert Cialdini are very influential in the way I think about emotion and thought and how they influence human interaction. Their work reflects the power of what is sometimes called the irrational in judgement (and I find this is often easily viewed as rational in the context of human emotions!). I have included a few books that might be of interest below and which I have found readable and informative.

    I also try to follow digested research press releases which are collated by sites such as Sciencedaily.com . I will search for particular topics relating to, for example, emotions at work and use the results as a starting point for finding researchers with this particular interest and articles examining specific experimental approaches. In a busy world it is a nice speedy way to find out what new research is being done!

    I am sorry not to give you specific academic references as requested – as (bad) luck would have it this article is more a collation of and reflection on everything I have read and how I see it unifying our understanding of the customer service experience – but I do hope these references below are useful for your own further explorations and thank you again for reading and commenting on the blog.

    Robert Cialdini – “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion”

    Daniel Kahneman “Thinking Fast and Slow” and this is a recent podcast http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2013/01/daniel-kahneman-on-bias/

    Elliot Aronson “The Social Animal”

    Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson “Mistakes were Made (but not by me)”

  3. Howdy are using WordPress for your site platform?

    I’m new to the blog world but I’m trying to get started and create my own.
    Do you require any coding knowledge to make your own blog?

    Any help would be really appreciated!

  4. Hello, I think your blog might be having browser compatibility issues.
    When I look at your website in Ie, it looks fine but when opening in
    Internet Explorer, it has some overlapping. I just wanted to give you a quick heads
    up! Other then that, great blog!

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