Why being alert to emotional context can boost customer satisfaction and benefit the bottom line

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Kerry Edwards 25th July 2019 5 minute read

Why being alert to emotional context can boost customer satisfaction and benefit the bottom line

In a recent service design project, Customer Experience Director Kerry Edwards explored what happens when you pay more attention to the emotional state a customer may be in.

In her blog on this site earlier this week, Institute of Customer Service CEO Jo Causon made an excellent point about the impact of personal context on customer experience, and how organisations were missing an opportunity to impress customers by making the right emotional connection at difficult points in their lives.

I think that is very true, and it’s something we’ve been increasingly looking at with some interesting and perhaps surprising results.

When you read the latest UKCSI results there are clear observations about the importance of designing services and products that interact empathetically with customers when they’re going through a critical time in their life.

It’s easy to think of those times in terms of a death in the family, or perhaps a customer losing their job, but it doesn’t have to be that. There are many other circumstances in customers’ lives when they can be under stress, moving house for example. You have a list of 100 things to do, the removal van is late, the kids are crying, and suddenly something as simple as an energy bill landing on the mat is enough to tip a difficult day into a crisis – or at least to seem that way.

Service design with a human heart

We see more and more at Capita that part of our role is to help clients work out how their services and products interact with the ‘human’ at the other end of the phone. Can we design that service and experience to be more empathetic? How we can identify when a customer may be going through a difficult moment that is temporarily putting them in a vulnerable situation? And then what can we do about it?

Most likely the service design isn’t the cause of that problem, but it’s interrupting customers while they’re going through it. That’s when you see disappointment and frustration coming from end users, because they don’t feel the organisation has recognised the situation they are in and taken account of it.

As the latest UKCSI figures illustrate, when customers are going through a difficult time and the business they are dealing with doesn’t commit to them, or doesn’t keep its promises, then you will see a very dramatic increase in customer dissatisfaction. It’s a perfect storm. If something like an incorrect bill arrives at that moment, their emotional response will be hugely amplified. That emotional response then gets attached to your business and your satisfaction rating with that customer absolutely plummets, perhaps permanently.

We’ve recently done a big piece of work with one client around addressing this in the collection cycle. Rather than look at the processes involved – which perhaps have been concentrated on too much in the past - we spent a lot of our time just talking with agents about the questions and techniques they could use to uncover what might be happening in a customer’s life.

It’s not easy. You can’t just open a call with: “Hello, are you in a vulnerable situation today?” There’s a real skill in making customers feel safe enough to talk about how much money they have, for example, when they would normally find that very embarrassing to disclose.

Having the room to open up conversations

What we’ve learned is that scripts divorce agents from the human scenario. We need to trust that we have brilliant, bright, talented people on the phones, and in the design space we need to give them room to open up the conversation and uncover what’s really going on and what a good and successful outcome to the conversation might be.

For younger agents this can be a real challenge. They may never have owned property, or moved home. If they’re still living with their parents they may never have even received a utility bill. So it’s our job to help them find the emotional intelligence and empathy that enables them to understand what’s going on for the person on the call and to know how they may be feeling.

What’s crucial is that even when advisors have the empathetic skills to recognise there’s something more happening with a customer, they may not always have the permission culture that allows them to go down another route to look for a solution.

Building processes that support doing ‘the right thing’

So importantly, it’s also about the policies we need to build that take away the constraints of the usual process and put the human at the centre. It’s our role at Capita to help our clients design thoughtful and emotional support processes that allow our agents to ‘do the right thing’ for a customer going through a difficult life event.

To be fair, many clients find these decisions hard to make, and it’s understandable. You can look at it in very binary way and say, if we let this customer pay three weeks later or take a break in their payment plan, then that decision will ultimately have a cash flow impact on our client.

Where I think the recent UKCSI results help is in articulating what the long-term benefits are to doing that. If we say to a member of the public, ‘ok, we understand this is a difficult time, lets figure out what we can do’, then the rewards in terms of the trust that builds for the customer are enormous. Customers who trust an organisation score the highest in recommending that organisation, so it comes back to the business in the end.

Empathy can drive revenue and results

In the collection cycle case study we’ve been carrying out, we recognised that we couldn’t go to the senior leadership team and say ‘we can do this, but you’ll have to be prepared to collect less.’ That’s just not a good trade off. We knew we had to collect what we do today or more. And in fact, at the end of this work on service design, it was more.

Not only did the absolute value of what we collected increase, but the ratio of the number of customers who paid something increased at the same time, and so did the customer satisfaction with that transaction. Value, ratio, satisfaction all went up.

What was interesting was that the people in the call centre felt better too. Attrition went down, illness went down. As people, if we recognise that someone on the other end of the phone is having a hard time, but we’re constrained by scripts and protocols, that can be hard to deal with. When you’re given the permission to ‘do the right thing’ that’s amazing. Who wouldn’t want to turn up to a job where you can have a positive impact on people’s lives and on the client’s business?

Find out more about the UK Customer Satisfaction Index.

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