Is Staying Calm and Unemotional Exactly the Wrong Thing to do for Customer Service Employees?

Well yes, very probably, implies a new study.

This new paper by two Canadian psychologists reviews the academic literature on emotional intelligence and suggests that the ability to influence others as a result of one’s own displays of emotion is a distinct emotional ability with consequences in the workplace. 

Stephane Cote and Ivona Hideg argue that some people are better than others at showing appropriate emotions which influence the feelings, behaviour and attitudes of those around them.  

They propose that this ability to influence others through displays of emotions sits alongside other aspects of emotional intelligence that are currently better understood, such as the ability to perceive emotions or the ability to manage emotions.

Much is written about the contribution that emotional intelligence makes to the quality of customer service and academic studies show evidence of a link between various features of emotional intelligence and objectively measured job performance in customer service roles.  For example, research indicates that people who are more emotionally intelligent in terms of understanding and managing emotions, are rated higher in terms of customer service provision by senior managers (1).

However, there has been little attention focused on the role that expression of emotion plays in job performance and the authors contend that not only is it a genuine and measurable ability that is present to differing degrees in different people, but also that it is highly likely to have a direct effect, albeit moderated by other factors, on job performance.

So What Does this Mean for Customer Service Providers?

It means that customers like people who come across as positive about, and genuinely engaged in, the interaction and who seem to reflect appropriately the emotions they are experiencing.  And that because they like them, customers are likely to communicate more clearly, more warmly and more informatively, thereby making the customer service employee’s job easier.  This “emotional contagion” turns into a positive cycle of emotions during the interaction, and enables the customer service employee to provide better service and leaves the customer feeling happier with the interaction, and consequently, I would argue, with the organisation.   

Customer service employees who think they are performing well by maintaining a cool, business-like and unresponsive emotional style may be inadvertently lowering their ability to support and influence the customer.  Many customers may interpret this professional distance as meaning that the employee is unengaged and somewhat disinterested in their needs or their feelings.  Consequently, their own responses will feed into a more negative cycle of misinterpretation and distance that is likely to lead at best to neither party feeling entirely satisfied with the interaction, and at worst to poor ratings and negative beliefs about quality of service.

Can, or Should, Expressed Emotion be Faked in order to Facilitate the Customer Interaction?

The academic article does not directly address whether the displays of emotion need to be spontaneous or whether they can be consciously manipulated and have the same effect on customers.  In other words, does a good customer service employee just naturally demonstrate emotions that create effective work outcomes, or is it possible to get it right by judging what emotions would be most appropriate and effective in delivering excellent customer service to each customer?

In theory, either could work.  Uncomfortable as it might make us feel, there is no ethical reason why an employee should not attempt to manipulate customer emotions to leave them happier and more satisfied with their interaction, providing we agree that the end justifies the means and there is no sinister motivation to the attempt.  

However, humans are astute and speedy judges of others’ behaviours and intentions, and read non-verbal cues constantly.  A poorly executed attempt to display appropriate emotions during a customer interaction could leave the customer feeling confused, suspicious or annoyed.

Whilst being given information on how our displays of emotions, or absence of them, affects others may help some customer service employees to engage more genuinely and more influentially, a prescriptive training programme intended to guide employees on what emotions they should be displaying in what contexts would be ill-advised.  Customers are likely to spot the “on-message” nature of the emotional display in many customer service employees and the net result would be lower customer satisfaction.

What Next for Customer Service Providers?

It is early days for this research: there needs to be more evidence produced on how to measure this ability effectively and what effect it has on performance.  The researchers have identified some ”moderators” of the ability to influence others through displays of emotions and more need to be done to understand these limitations or supports to the effectiveness of the ability in practice.  However, the study sheds light on a newly defined emotional intelligence ability that may help us understand more about why some people are naturally better at customer service provision than others.  This has the potential to help organisations select and manage their employees better and deliver superior customer service.

In terms of the smooth facilitation of everyday life, it may well help to increase the chance that the customer service employee we speak to leaves us feeling that, in the course of our daily interactions with those who provide the products and services on which we depend, we have had a genuine and worthwhile interaction with another human being.


  1. Feyerherm, Ann E, Rice, Cheryl L, (2002) “Emotional Intelligence and team performance: the good the bad and the ugly” International Journal of Organizational Analysis, Vol 10, Iss: 4, pp343 – 362


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