We must listen to customers’ emotions as well as their words

Customer service agents work in a challenging environment, made harder right now by the difficulties we’re all facing. Capita’s Alan Linter explains how by evolving how we listen and paying attention to customers’ emotional needs, we can make the support we give each other stronger than it’s ever been.

Increasingly these days, we are having to let go of certain ideas that were once so ingrained. Growing up, I was always told to “treat others how you would like to be treated yourself.” Sounds fair enough, right? But this now seems reductive, based on the assumption that there is just one ‘right’ way which doesn’t vary from person to person – barring universal concepts such as politeness, courtesy and fairness, of course.

Better, rather, to remember that we are all individuals with our own unique needs. Not only that, but what a person needs can be circumstantial: it is not necessarily the same today as it was yesterday, owing to what has happened since or what is happening now.

Another popular mantra is “don’t just hear; listen.” This one definitely still holds up to scrutiny, but have you ever really thought about what it means? We hear noises; specifically, the words people say. We digest them by listening, paying attention to their content. But to hear means really understanding what is being said, and for that we must also take the context and delivery into account – and as we all know, the majority of communication is actually nonverbal (another mantra!) Specifically, as professor of psychology Albert Mehrabian originally established, nearly 40% of a person’s attitude is conveyed vocally through tone and inflection, with a mere 7% coming from the actual words that they are saying.

Let’s put this in the context of customer services. A caller comes on the line and requests an action or explains a difficulty that they are having. Practically half of what this person is saying is what they aren’t saying. They may very well be experiencing a negative emotion such as anxiety – and it’s not easy to pick up on this over the phone. When calling up a friend we may let it all come out, but when contacting a company we will probably try to mask our feelings. And there is, of course, plenty for us to feel anxious about right now, with rising energy prices contributing to the cost of living crisis that is forcing many to take drastic steps, such as underheating our homes, leaving the lights off, and skipping meals – not to mention falling further into debt.

Our recent research with Ipsos MORI revealed that customers consider their emotional needs being met to be of paramount importance. They wish to be heard, they wish to be understood, they want empathy. And yes: making someone who reaches out to you feel valued and putting yourself in their shoes should be your priority. But as attuned as the most sensitive of us may be to our fellow human beings, we could all use a little help with recognising these emotional needs.

One thing that can help is voice analytics software. Not mere speech analytics but going further and studying the nuances of ‘paraverbal’ communication in real time: the tone, pitch and speaking pace; the stress level in the voice. Using this information to accurately identify the person’s emotive state and giving the telephone agent live prompts on what support to give and how. Humans and AI coexisting and working together in harmony, giving the most vulnerable a better experience.

I’ll leave you with one more mantra: “people do not always remember what you did or what you said, but they will always remember how you made them feel.” Now that’s one which I’m confident will stand the test of time.