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Emotional Intelligence: Build Bonds Between Your Brand and the Customer

Though it does not pre-assign seats or provide onboard meals and at times has a lengthy wait and check in process, consumers year in and year out rank Southwest Airlines at the top or near the top of customer service.

Why is Southwest consistently near the top?

There are many reasons.  The most significant being alignment of customer experience to both their brand and customer expectations; however, I believe a key component of Southwest success in customer service is the emotional intelligence of their employees.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

Emotional intelligence is defined by four personality characteristics:

  1. A strong sense of self-empowerment and self regulation;
  2. A positive outlook;
  3. An awareness of feelings (both their own and customers); and
  4. A master of fear and anxiety and the ability to tap into selfless motives.

Each of these characteristics provide a clear benefit to the customer experience:

Personality Characteristic Benefit to the Customer Experience
Self-Empowerment and Regulation Make Decisions in the Moment


Positive Outlook


Constructive Responses to Challenges
Awareness of Feelings Empathy and Better Communication with Customers


Master of Fear/Anxiety and Selfless Motives Express Feelings of Empathy and Caring


Leading customer experience brands position the employee to constructively respond to challenges, make decisions in the moment, empathize with customers, and perhaps most important, not only feel but express feeling of care, concern and empathy to customers.

Much of the benefit of emotional intelligence is derived in  “moments of truth” where some experiences in the customer journey have far greater importance than others.  These moments of truth represent increased risk and opportunity to leave a lasting emotional impression on the customer; a lasting impression with significant long-term implications for both customer loyalty and wallet share.  Perhaps the most common moment of truth is when something has gone wrong, the customer is unhappy or scared, and the relationship is at risk.

How do we build emotional intelligence?

First of all, emotional bonding cannot be scripted.  Attempting to script such a connection will inevitably come off as hollow and insincere lacking authenticity and empathy, completely undermining the desired customer experience.  Rather, emotional bonding must be a result of a spontaneous series of events that emerge from the emotional intelligence of employees.

The obvious starting point in building emotional intelligence is hiring frontline employees with the requisite emotional intelligence skills.   Emotional intelligence can also be learned.  However, it is a “soft” skill, unlike “hard” skills such as math; it can’t be taught in structured sessions. Rather, emotional intelligence is learned like almost all other human behaviors primarily though observation, experience and imitation.


Four Steps to Build Emotional Intelligence

Give people meaning in their work:  Inspire frontline employees with a purpose beyond a paycheck.  This clarity of purpose should include both what they are supposed to do and why they are supposed to do it.

In empowering frontline employees to serve customers, brands should arm them with statements of general principles and values rather than scripted procedures, which undermine empowerment.  Reinforce these principals often so in the instant, when they are in a moment of truth with a customer in need, they have an appropriate framework from which to resolve the issue – and bond the customer to the brand.

Most frontline employees want to help customers; however, their motivations may be varied.  Leading customer experience brands allow their employees to discover their own motivations for looking out for the customer’s best interests.

Create learning opportunities through experience:  Humans are programmed to learn through self-discovery.  Self-discovery reinforces the learning process by instilling a sense of accomplishment or pride.  These positive feelings associated with self-discovery are a strong psychological reward, which reinforces the learning process.  While self-discovery is not a top-down process, managers can foster self-discovery through feedback, encouraging employees to reflect on their own successes and failures, and anecdotes about other employees.  Case studies are not just for MBA students.

Align customer experience systems and processes:  It is imperative that systems and processes support the emotional skills desired from employees.  Systems and process must constantly reinforce the overall message of emotional intelligence and emotionally connecting with customers.   In empowering employees to respond to moments of truth, management must strike a balance between financial considerations and the things that matter to the customer.  Good customer experiences are not good because they are good; they are good because they are profitable; however, there is no benefit to being penny wise and pound foolish.  Finally, processes need to be streamlined to give employees both the time and ability to rise to the situation.

Enlist leaders and mentors:  Emotions are learned through modeling.  Children don’t learn to react to certain stimuli just because a parent tells them what to feel.  We learn how to react to certain situations through trial and error and observing role models.  First, it is imperative that all managers and leadership model appropriate emotional skills.  How can you expect emotional intelligence from the frontline if it doesn’t exist in leadership?  Second, identify employees with the appropriate emotional skills and position them as role models within the organization.

Key to success of any customer facing brand is alignment of the customer experience to both the brand promise and customer expectations.  Most of time, this is not difficult. Appropriate systems procedures and even automated delivery channels can achieve this end.   However, in moments of truth, where there is a high degree of risk associated with the outcome of the experience, leading customer experience brands rely on an emotionally intelligent frontline staff to align the experience and bond the customer to the brand.


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5 Steps to Make Frontline Employees Authentic Representatives of the Brand

Actions speak louder than words.  Brands spend millions of dollars on external messaging to define an emotional connection with the customer.  However, when a customer perceives a disconnect between an employee representing the brand and external messaging, they almost certainly will experience brand ambiguity.  The result severely undermines these investments; not only for the customer in question, but their entire social network.  In today’s increasing connected world, one bad experience could be shared hundreds if not thousands of times over.

Bottom line, frontline employees must be authentic representatives of the brand.

Simple enough, right?  Nearly all rational managers will agree with the above statement.  But how does management ensure that employees animate the brand? – It is a process of alignment.

Here are five steps to align the customer experience with external messaging:

  1. Align external messaging with customer expectations:   Repeatedly test the effect of external messages on customer expectations.  Ask yourself, what expectations are we instilling based on our messaging?  Additionally, the next four steps will help ensure that operational staff fully understand and are equipped to handle these promises made to customers.
  1. Align customer expectations with company service standards:  Even in the most sophisticated and progressive companies, standards of service delivery can be out of sync with customer needs and expectations. One reason is that customers are seldom involved in the writing of these standards. Rather, service standards tend to be the product of mid-management committees, resulting in a hodge-podge of ideas and opinions that are more a reflection of operational expediency than of customer expectations.  A better practice is to calibrate service standards against customer needs, expectations and experiences.
  1. Align service standards with training content:  Training should arise from standards, not vice versa.  Bring training managers into the process from the beginning, ensuring that as standards are adjusted, training content will follow.
  1. Align training content with frontline execution:  The success of most training programs is measured in terms of the participant’s ability to recall the content, rather than to apply the information on the job.  A more proactive practice is to identify specific deficiencies in service delivery and adjust training content to address those deficiencies.
  1. Align frontline execution with rewards and incentives:  At the managerial level, incentives tend to be in the form of quarterly bonuses linked to metrics such as customer satisfaction and service execution scores.  However, you can go farther.  Depending on the data available, consider rewards on a much more immediate and shorter cycle.  For example, on a daily basis, call centers agents can receive bonus points that are immediately redeemable at on-line redemption sites.  Or a bank teller may receive an immediate reward if they display the appropriate behavior to a mystery shopper. Thus, employees receive quick, meaningful rewards that reinforce the specific skills that are needed to improve customer experiences.

These are five steps to align the customer experience with external messaging.  How do you ensure your frontline employees are authentic representatives of the brand?

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Opposite Sides of the Same Coin: One Word Descriptions of the Customer Experience In Experiences with Both Positive and Negative Purchase Intent

What one word would a customer use to describe the experience at your bank?

Would your customer experience be described as professional, knowledgeable or informative, or would it be described as frustrating, disappointing, inexperienced or rushed?

One simple and elegant tool to get a picture of your customer experience is to ask customers what one word they would use to describe the customer experience.

Kinesis recently mystery shopped six major North American banks to evaluate the state of the sales and service process at these institutions and identify potential drivers of purchase intent in the customer experience. Shoppers were asked a mixture of closed-ended questions to evaluate the presence or frequency of specific behaviors, and open-ended questions to gather the qualitative impressions of these behaviors on the shoppers – in short the how and why behind what the shopper felt. Part of this research plan was to ask shopper to describe their experience with one word. Finally, to provide a basis to evaluate the effectiveness of each of these brand attributes, shoppers were asked to rate their purchase intent as a result of the visit. This purchase intent rating was then used as a means of evaluating which attributes tend to be used to describe experiences with positive purchase intent compared to those with negative purchase intent.

The descriptions we received from mystery shoppers ranged from professional, knowledgeable, and informative to disappointing, frustrating and rushed. This list of adjectives alone was interesting; however, the purpose of this research was to identify drivers of purchase intent, in part to differentiate experiences with positive purchase intent compared to those with negative purchase intent.

So…how did the customer experience in mystery shops that reported positive purchase intent differ from those that reported negative purchase intent? –OR- Specifically, what adjectives did shoppers use to describe the experience that created positive purchase intent compared to those that created negative purchase intent?

Shoppers who reported purchase intent used the following adjectives to describe the experience.

Adjective Pos PI

From this word cloud the drivers of positive purchase intent can be deduced.  Potential bank customers respond to bankers who are professional, informative, knowledgeable, friendly, pleasant, helpful and attentive.  What customers want is a banker who cares about their needs and has the ability to meet those needs.

Conversely, shoppers who reported negative purchase intent as a result of the customer experience used the following adjectives to describe the customer experience.

Adjective Neg PI

In comparison to the shops with positive purchase intent, the list of adjectives that describe shops with negative purchase intent is a little more nuanced.  Adjectives like frustrating and disappointing are illuminative but not necessarily actionable; while adjectives such as rushed, inexperienced, indifferent, and pushy provide clear direction with respect to elements of the customer experience that undercut purchase intent.

Bottom line: Customers want to do business with bankers who care about their needs and have the ability to satisfy those needs, and reject bankers who are inexperienced, indifferent, pushy or rush the customer through the transaction.

Two Sides of The Same Coin
Positive Purchase Intent Negative Purchase Intent

Informative/ Knowledgeable









When you look at these adjectives side by side, aren’t these opposite sides of the same coin?

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Not All Service Attributes Are Equal: Retail Bank Transaction Drivers of Loyalty

Research has determined the business attribute with the highest correlation to profitability is customer loyalty.  Customer loyalty lowers sales and acquisition costs per customer by amortizing these costs across a longer lifetime – leading to some extraordinary financial results.  In one study of the retail banking industry, a 5% increase in customer loyalty translated into an 85% increase in profits.[1]

Customer loyalty is driven by the entire relationship with bank.  Image, positioning, products, price and service all mix together in the customer’s’ value equation as customers make a continual decision to remain loyal.

What customer service attributes drive customer loyalty?

This article summarizes research into specific transaction service attributes with the intent of identifying which transaction attributes drive customer loyalty, and provides an analytical tool to help managers determine which attributes will yield the highest potential for ROI in terms of improving customer loyalty.

In order to determine transaction attributes which drive customer loyalty, Kinesis surveyed bank customers who had recently conducted a transaction at a branch.

With respect to the transaction, customers were asked to rate the following service attributes:

  • Professional dress
  • Branch cleanliness
  • Prompt greeting
  • Greeting made customer feel welcome
  • Dependable and accurate
  • Prompt service
  • Willingness to help
  • Job knowledge
  • Interest in helping
  • Best interests in mind
  • Actively listened to needs
  • Ability of bank personnel to help achieve financial needs
  • Desire of bank personnel to help customers achieve financial goals
  • Commitment to community

The next step in the research is to capture a measurement of loyalty against which to compare these attributes.

Measuring customer loyalty in the context of a survey is difficult.   Surveys best measure attitudes and perceptions. Loyalty is a behavior based on rational decisions customers make continually through the lifecycle of their relationship with the bank.  Survey researchers therefore need to find a proxy measurement to determine customer loyalty.  A researcher might measure customer tenure under the assumption that length of relationship predicts loyalty.  However, customer tenure is a poor proxy.  A customer with a long tenure may leave the bank, or a new customer may be very satisfied and highly loyal.

Measuring customer loyalty in the context of a survey is difficult.   Surveys best measure attitudes and perceptions. Loyalty is a behavior based on rational decisions customers make continually through the lifecycle of their relationship with the bank.  Survey researchers therefore need to find a proxy measurement to determine customer loyalty.  A researcher might measure customer tenure under the assumption that length of relationship predicts loyalty.  However, customer tenure is a poor proxy.  A customer with a long tenure may leave the bank, or a new customer may be very satisfied and highly loyal.

Kinesis proposes a model for estimating customer loyalty based on two measurements: likelihood of referral and customer advocacy.  Likelihood of referral captures a measurement of the customer’s likelihood to refer the bank to friend, relative or colleague.  It stands to reason, if one is going to refer others to the bank, they will remain loyal as well.  Because customers who are promoters of the bank are putting their reputational risk on the line, this willingness to put their reputational risk on the line is founded on a feeling of loyalty and trust.  This concept of trust is perhaps more evident in the second measurement,: customer advocacy.  Customer advocacy is captured by measuring agreement with the following statement: “My bank cares about me, not just the bottom line.”  Customers who agree with this statement trust the bank to do right by them, and not subjugate their best interests to profits.  Customers who trust their bank to do the right thing are more likely to remain loyal.

Kinesis uses likelihood of referral, hereafter labeled “Promoter,” and customer advocacy, hereafter labeled “Trust,” to calculate an estimate of the customer’s loyalty.  Imagine a plot where each customer’s Promoter score is plotted along one axis and the Trust score plotted along the other.  Using this plot we can calculate the linear distance between the perfect state of the highest possible Trust and Promoter ratings.  This distance yields a loyalty estimate for each customer, where the lower the value, the higher the estimate of loyalty – low values are good.[i]

Trust Promoter Plot

See Using Promoter and Trust Measurements to Calculate a Customer Loyalty Index for a complete description of this methodology.

Calculating a loyalty index has value, but limited utility.  A loyalty index alone does not give management much direction upon which to take action.  One strategy to increase the actionably of the research is to use this index as a means to identify the service attributes that drive customer loyalty.  Not all service attributes are equal; some play a larger role than others in driving customer loyalty.

So…how does the research determine an attribute’s role or relationship to customer loyalty?  One tool is to capture satisfaction ratings of specific service attributes and determine their correlation to the loyalty statistic.  The Pearson correlation coefficient is a measure of the strength of a linear association between two variables.

Comparing the correlation of the above service attributes to this loyalty estimate yields the following Pearson Correlation for each attribute:

Pearson Coefficient

Want to help me achieve financial goals


Commitment to community


Ability to help achieve financial goals


Best interests in mind


Greeting made customer feel welcome


Interested in helping


Willing to help


Prompt service


Actively listened to needs


Prompt greeting


Dependable and accurate


Professional dress


Knew job Job knowledge


Branch attractive


Branch clean


Note the Pearson values are negative; the loyalty estimate is an inverse, where lower values indicate a stronger estimate of loyalty.  As a result the stronger negative correlation translates into a correlation to our estimate of loyalty.

The four attributes with the highest correlation to loyalty are:

  1. Want to help me achieve financial goals,
  2. Commitment to community,
  3. Ability to help achieve financial goals, and
  4. Having my best interests in mind.

Two common themes in the top-four attributes are empathy and competence.  Bank customers value relationships with banks that care about their needs and have the ability to satisfy those needs.  Again, customer loyalty is driven by the entire relationship with bank.  However, in terms of transactional service, customers clearly value empathy and competency and will reward banks who deliver on these two attributes with loyalty.

[i] The mathematical equation for this distance is as follows:

Loyalty Index Equation


T = Trust rating

P = Promoter rating

ST = Number of points on the Trust scale

SP = Number of points on the Promoter scale


[1] Heskett, Sasser, and Schlesinger The Service Profit Chain, 1997, New York: The Free Press, p 21

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Training Takes Over When Customer Service Gene Fails

Author: Peter Gurney

Reprinted from the Puget Sound Business Journal

February, 2002

A subject of perennial debate among those who manage customer service workers is whether good service skills are innate or trainable – a Nature versus Nurture argument.

On the Nature side are those who claim the key to providing good service lies in the hiring process. They interview, test and screen applicants to make sure they hire only those with the right instincts and attitudes. They scour the labor market looking for those Jeeves types who possess what P.G. Wodehouse referred to as “the proper feudal spirit.”

On the Nurture side are those who believe good service skills can be developed through training, coaching, clear standards and consistent measurement. They are willing to hire the Eliza Doolittles, hoping they can make a lady out of a flower girl.

I have seen both approaches succeed (and fail), but the nature approach is becoming less tenable with time.

It isn’t that workers with the right instincts are disappearing. The problem is there is far more service choices available to consumers than there was in the past. Expanded store hours, the proliferation of retail and restaurant chains, and the extraordinary growth of 24-hour call centers all contribute to an economy in which customer service workers are in high demand.

As the competition for these workers has increased, the talent pool has been diluted. Companies nowadays rarely have the luxury of looking for Jeeves, so they must invest in the education of Eliza.

Many organizations provided exemplary service through the nurture approach for a while, but few are able to keep it up for long. As they expand into new markets, opened up bigger call centers and faced periodic labor shortages, their ability to rely on hiring “the right people” became more difficult to sustain.

Without a system in place for developing the not-so-right people, service quality declines. In many cases, companies who worked hard to differentiate themselves on the basis of superior service find themselves unable to maintain their reputation in the long run.

Consider Eagle Hardware, the local home improvement retailer that was acquired by Lowe’s several years ago. In its first years the service at Eagle was head and shoulders above the competition. Positioning itself as a kinder and gentler Home Depot, Eagle provided exceptional service quality, with well-informed, helpful floor staff who took the initiative to approach customers and answer their questions. Encouraged by its success, Eagle expanded rapidly; however, as the the competition for service personnel increased service quality started to fall.

One manager confided he had switched from being highly selective in his hiring to simply looking for “warm bodies” to fill his staffing needs. In fairness, the service at Eagle remained fairly good relative to many other chains; however, the expectations of its customers were higher, and thus, their disappointment greater when service declined.

This is not to suggest managers should give up their search for the proper feudal spirit. At the least, they should continue screening out those who utterly lack the instinct for providing good service.

There is no doubt many prospective hires are hopeless as customer service providers, and would do better looking for some other line of work. But it is the in-between service workers, those who are neither “naturals” nor hopeless cases, for whom better systems need to be developed.

Consider the following scenario: Several years ago a video rental store, part of a national chain, set up shop in my Seattle neighborhood. The staff – all teenagers – were every customer’s nightmare. They talked on the phone with friends, were thoroughly uninformed about the video selection, and treated customers as annoyances who interfered with their personal conversations.

After a year or two the store closed, lying vacant for several months before reopening under the management of another national chain. The service at the new store was excellent. Customers were greeted at the door, the employees were attentive and polite, and the manager – a real, live adult – was always present. Looking at the employees, I thought they seemed vaguely familiar, then realized several of them were the same hopeless cases who worked at the original store. The flower girls had returned as ladies.

This is not an isolated case. Many businesses with vastly different levels of service exist virtually side-by-side, drawing from the same labor pool. Interviews with workers and managers reveal consistent patterns among the superior service providers: Lots of training and coaching, clear standards, plenty of feedback, and high expectations. Those workers with the proper feudal spirit tend to emerge as stand-outs and role models. The rest of the staff – the majority – are exactly as good as the system and processes that support them. When the system is well designed and administered it can survive expansion and tight labor markets – even without the assistance of nature.

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