Forget Happiness, This Is the Top Emotion for Customer Support

The webinar software picked the wrong time to get wonky.

My online training class started in less than 30 minutes. A client was paying good money for its employees to attend this session. Schedules had been rearranged to make it happen. There was a lot on the line.

Everything was locked and loaded just minutes earlier. Suddenly, I couldn't log in. I placed a frantic call to technical support.

The technical support rep must have been super empowered. She skipped all of the usual items on the support checklist ("Yes, I've tried rebooting my computer.") and quickly diagnosed the problem.

Now came the surprise.

The rep offered to stay on the line with me until my webinar started. She wanted to make sure everything was OK. 

I went from feeling frustrated and anxious to feeling relieved. For support teams, customer relief is much more important than happiness.

Why Relief Matters in Support

A survey of 1,345 consumers conducted by the Temkin Group discovered that relief was the most common emotion experienced after a technical support interaction.

Let's break it down a bit.

Most technical support interactions start with some form of distress. Customers experience a problem that causes anxiety, frustration, or even anger and are counting on the technical support rep to help them fix it.

Now consider the definition of relief. My favorite comes from the Oxford Dictionary:

A feeling of reassurance and relaxation following release from anxiety or distress.

It's a big emotional swing to move from distress to reassurance. The peak-end rule in psychology tells us the emotional peak is often the most memorable part of an interaction. Ending on a big positive further cements good feelings in the customer's memory.

So how can support teams bring more relief? Here are a few steps.


Improve the Pre-Call Experience

Many technical support teams, particularly start-ups, are guilty of intentionally making it difficult to reach a live agent.

The phone number is buried behind a wall of self-service options. Sometimes there's no phone support at all. Even then, customers must wade through a series of questions and menus just to initiate a live chat or send an email.

This is all based on a calculation that self-support is cheaper than live support. It's also a tactic that can backfire.

Customers are already experiencing negative emotions due to their technical issue. A struggle to get live support at a time of need only serves to amplify those feelings.

This puts relief even farther out of reach.

Now here's the secret. Most customers don't want to connect with live support! They too want to solve the problem on their own.

Customers look for live support when they try self-service and it fails or they believe their issue is too complicated for self-service. Smart companies get this and make it easy for customers to choose between self-service or contacting a live agent.

Quickly connecting with the help you need is a form of relief in itself.

You can still deflect unnecessary service contacts if you do it right. For example, customer service software provider Zendesk takes the live agent or self-service option to a whole new level of awesome.


Allow Agents to Build Rapport

Friendliness and empathy aren't just nice-to-have elements of a support call.

Remember, customers contact support when they're experiencing negative emotions. Research shows that people in that state of mind are more judgmental and less open to ideas.

That's a toxic situation for effective support. So a support analyst who can build rapport can quickly set the stage for faster problem resolution. Which, in turn, makes it easier to bring relief.

Here are a few tactics to try:

  • Start the conversation with enthusiasm.
  • Learn the customer's name and introduce yourself before asking for account info.
  • Listen to yourself and note times when your tone isn't friendly.


Give Agents Space to Listen

Customers are notoriously bad at telling their story.

This causes two problems when it comes to listening. First, large support queues can make employees over-anxious to hop to a solution. That shuts down listening, which in turn can create friction.

The other problem is instinctive. Our brains naturally shut down listening when we start hearing a story we think we've heard before. 

Veteran agents have heard it all before, so your more experienced employees can have an even tougher time listening than your rookies.

Agents need coaching and feedback to develop effective listening skills. Try monitoring interactions to see obvious missed opportunities. Here's an example from a written interaction.

Help get agents get listening right and you'll speed up support resolutions and make customers feel better in the process.



The webinar software functioned normally during my client webinar.

I continued to experience other issues afterwards, issues that caused me to think about finding another provider. The only thing that kept me loyal was the memory of that outstanding support interaction.

All told, experiencing relief that day bought my webinar provider two more years worth of renewals it wouldn't have gotten if my webinar wasn't a success.

What Maslow's Hierarchy Says About Customer Service Employees

We've all felt beaten up by a customer.

It's part of the job. A customer is angry, maybe even unfair. Intellectually, we know they're complaining about the product, the problem, or the situation.

The attack still feels personal.

Years of pithy advice tells us to "not take it personally." That's an instinctive impossibility. We're wired to take it personally.

What happens next is interesting. Some people are able to recover, overcome the instinct, and serve the customer with a smile. Others get defensive or angry, and service quality declines rapidly for that customer and perhaps the next customer, too.

If you manage customer service employees, or you serve customers on the frontline, it's important to understand the psychology behind this. 

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs gives us a clear explanation.

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs

In a paper written in 1943, psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed what's now famously known as Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs.

It ranked our basic needs as humans in priority order:

  1. Physiological
  2. Safety
  3. Love and belonging
  4. Esteem
  5. Self-actualization

The idea was you had to meet highest priority needs before you could concentrate on the next highest priority.

So you'd be willing to risk your physical safety (priority #2) if you had unmet physiological needs such as food, water, or air.

Serving that angry customer is the lowest priority for humans, sitting at #5, self-actualization. According to Maslow's Hierarchy, we can only commit to doing this if our higher priority needs are being met.


Meeting Higher Priority Needs First

In my book, Service Failure, I shared a story about Paul. 

He was working in a nightclub's office when he received a call from an angry customer. The customer had apparently been contacted by his credit card company about a fraudulent charge and he assumed that someone at the nightclub had stolen his credit card number.

Here's an excerpt:

At first Paul tried his best to be helpful, but he quickly realized the man just wanted to vent. The customer's repeated accusations, "Your server stole my credit card number" and "You guys need to be more careful," soon wore thin. As Paul explained, "I could feel my blood pressure going up. I could feel my face get flush. I felt like, 'Don't accuse my coworker of doing something that you don't know that they did.' There are a million ways that credit card numbers get stolen. It was so frustrating to me."

Paul found it difficult to serve this customer because his #4 need, esteem, was being challenged. The desire to be awesome at customer service (self-actualization) took a back seat to a strong desire to avoid further insult.

It's even worse in other companies.

Paul actually liked his coworkers and felt a need to stand up for the server he felt was falsely accused. This suggests his #3 need, love and belonging, was being met in the workplace. Paul felt a part of the team.

But what if he didn't?

I encountered one of these employees on a recent trip to the pet store. This particular chain is infamous for constantly rearranging merchandise, so you can't find what you're looking for from one visit to the next.

An employee was helping me locate a certain brand of dog food when she started to vent. "I guess they [the pet chain's management] just want you to wander around so you'll shop more," she said. 

Notice the use of the word, "They." 

She didn't feel part of the team. Her sense of identity, at least at work, wasn't strongly attached to her employer. She clearly felt embarrassed and frustrated by a corporate policy and took steps to distance herself from it.

How could she possibly provide great customer service when she didn't care?


Take Action

Maslow's Hierarchy of Human Needs helps explain the old adage, "Happy employees lead to happy customers."

Many leaders make the mistake of using incentives and gimmicky programs to motivate their employees. Research shows employees don't actually have a motivation problem. The real issue is de-motivation.

Employees want to do a great job, but many feel they can't. 

Customer service leaders can do several things to overcome this challenge, foster a sense of team unity, and fulfill employees' need for love and belonging:

  1. Create a customer service vision that provides a unifying purpose.
  2. Make it easier for employees to achieve the vision.
  3. Work together as a team to solve common problems.

You can take action too if you're an individual contributor.

While writing The Service Culture Handbook, I discovered many companies with customer-focused cultures have a peer recognition program. Coworkers recognize each other for delivering outstanding service that aligns with the company's vision.

You can do this even if you don't have a formal program.

Take a moment to recognize your coworkers for their efforts. Go out of your way to build positive and supportive workplace relationships. This will help make your organization a better place to work and it will become even easier to serve your customers.

New Research Reveals Why Customers Hate Call Centers

Nobody likes calling customer service.

The list of gripes is a mile long: confusing phone menus, intolerable hold times, and a lack of agent empowerment all annoy us.

New research from Mattersight reveals a few specific reasons why customers are dissatisfied. What's surprising is it's not a poor product, service, or policy that's at the heart of the problem. It turns out the heart itself is feeling ignored.

Finding #1: Customers don't want to call

It's easy to get confused by channel preference data.

Microsoft's 2015 U.S. State of Multichannel Customer Service report revealed that the phone is still the most popular channel. Their survey shows that 81 percent of customers use the telephone to contact customer service on a regular basis.

At first glance, it seems like customers actually do want to call you. Otherwise, another channel would be more popular, right? Here's where Mattersight's data provides some additional perspective: 

Only 28% of customers call customer service as their first attempt to solve a problem.

This means that most customers who call start somewhere else. Microsoft's study found that 57 percent of customers start online, but customers might also try another channel like email, chat, or social media. They end up calling when they can't solve their problem on the first try.

Smart companies work to prevent calls by providing better service through other channels, particularly self-service. This keeps their customers happy and allows them to serve customers more efficiently.


Finding #2: Customers are already upset

Calling customer service can feel like navigating an obstacle course. Think about all a customer has to go through just to get someone on the phone:

  1. They experienced a problem.
  2. They couldn't resolve it without calling.
  3. They had to navigate through an annoying IVR system.
  4. They had to wait on hold.

Mattersight's study revealed this is a major problem:

66% of customers are frustrated before they even start talking with a customer service representative.

This frustration makes the customer service agent's job a lot harder in several ways:

Smart companies realize the best strategy for working with upset customers is to have fewer upset customers. They work on identifying and fixing root causes rather than deploying their customer service agents as human punching bags.


Finding #3: Customers aren't happy after the call

Call center agents routinely overlook their customers' emotional needs. Here's another stat from Mattersight that sums it up:

75% of customers have felt frustrated after talking with a customer service representative, even if their problem was solved.

Serving emotional needs is the real secret sauce in customer service. Unfortunately, we tend to focus so much on solving the problem that we miss out on helping the customer feel better.

A 2011 study from Bain highlights a terrific example. They looked at Net Promoter Scores for airline passengers who experienced a flight delay or cancellation. The data revealed that the way the issue was handled had a much heavier influence on their rating than the event itself.



All of these findings revolve around attending to your customers' emotional needs. Here's a short video that gives you a glimpse into that way that tending to emotional needs can make a difference.

So, what can you do to make calling your company a better experience for your customers? Here are three suggestions:

First, give customers fewer reasons to call. Relentlessly search for icebergs and fix those problems. Improve the quality of your self-service options so customers can solve issues on their own.

Second, make it easier for customers to call. Remove or reduce barriers like clunky phone menus and long hold times. Consider adding a callback feature like Fonolo if you routinely have large spikes in call volume.

Third, train your agents to serve their customers' emotional needs. You can use the Working With Upset Customers training video on You'll need a subscription to view the entire course, but you can pick up a 10-day trial here.

How Companies Systematically Fail to Weigh Emotional Anchors

Last October 22 was a rough day.

My car broke down in a hotel parking lot while I was heading out to see a client. I had to cab it there, barely making it on time.

I got a call from my Mom while riding in a cab on the way back to the hotel. She told me my Dad had been taken by ambulance to the hospital with chest pain.

My car needed to be towed. I had to trust the internet to find a nearby mechanic with good online reviews. I coordinated this while getting updates about my Dad from my Mom.

The mechanic seemed trustworthy, but it took them a few hours to diagnose the problem. Fortunately, my Dad was stable and feeling okay. 

My car’s diagnosis came in. The clutch slave and master cylinder both needed to be replaced. This is a major repair that requires the mechanic to remove the entire transmission. It’s also an astonishing problem for a car like mine with only 37,000 miles on it.

The mechanic told me the car would be ready the following afternoon. The nice-ish hotel where I was staying was sold out, so I ended up in a dingy motel down the street. 

I spent the night feeling stuck and worried about my Dad.

My car was repaired by mid-afternoon the next day. My Dad was feeling okay, but he was still in the hospital. I made the three hour drive to visit him, worrying throughout the entire drive that my car would break down again.

Companies frequently fail to consider their customers' emotional needs.

Companies frequently fail to consider their customers' emotional needs.


The Cold No

I really liked my car before this incident. I had owned it for four years and couldn’t imagine owning another one.

Now, it's hard to drive it without thinking about the huge hassle it caused me. I went from loving the car to feeling like I’d never buy another one from this brand again.

My local dealer wasn't any help. I had bought the car there and take it in for regular service. I contacted them for help. The service advisor flatly told me there was nothing they could do. She delivered the message without the slightest bit of empathy.

I called the manufacturer’s consumer affairs hotline to see if they'd be willing to do something. Anything would do, even a goodwill gesture of some kind. After a bit of back and forth a case manager told me there was nothing they would do.

Just like the dealer, the message was delivered with zero empathy.


Emphasizing The Wrong Needs

Customers have two needs: rational and emotional. 

It’s the emotional needs that are often overlooked. Everything is geared towards addressing the rational issue.

Rationally, the dealer was right.

They’re compensated for repairs by the customer or, in the case of warranty issues, by the manufacturer. My repair didn’t fit either circumstance, so there wasn’t any money in it for them.

Rationally, the manufacturer was right.

My car was sold with a warranty that guarantees against these types of problems for a certain period of time. Once that time is passed, those problems are no longer the manufacturer’s responsibility. My car’s warranty had expired.

So, I’m being careful not to call out the brand by name. By the same token, the complete lack of empathy feels cold.

I wasn't expecting to be completely reimbursed for the repair. But nothing? Not even a goodwill gesture? Ouch.

I understand that how I feel about the situation is a mix of both rational and emotional needs. Trust me, emotional needs are far more important than rational ones.


It’s the System

What companies should understand is their systems create these emotional disconnects.

  • Companies teach employees to fix problems, not assuage feelings.
  • Companies think in terms of dollars, not goodwill.
  • Companies focus on transactional value, not lifetime value.

Perhaps I should have been more clear. I could have told the dealer and the manufacturer, "I had a terrible experience, and I'd like you to help me feel better about my car."

The problem is customers don't think like that.

They speak in rational terms too. Sometimes, it's hard to understand what you're really feeling in the moment. It seems weird to tell a customer service rep that what you really want is to be emotionally validated. 

Very few employees are trained to decode what customers are really saying. 

I tried to make it clear to the dealer and the manufacturer that I wouldn't buy their brand of car again. They'd both lost my business. I doubt this is tracked.

Most businesses don't have a good system for this. Most employees aren't taught to carefully listen for this information. Very few pass along complaints.



Today, my Dad’s feeling great and is in good health. That's what's most important.

My car is driving fine. I think. Something doesn't feel quite right, but I'm not sure whether it's real or imagined. Emotions have a funny way of playing tricks on you like that.

The Most Important Customer Need Is Often Overlooked

Note: This post was originally published on the AMA Playbook Blog.

Customers have two types of basic needs. Unfortunately, it’s the most important need that often gets overlooked when dealing with these customer needs.

The first need is rational. A rational need is the specific service a customer is requesting. For example, a customer might call a software company for technical support because they can’t get their software to work properly.

The second need is emotional. An emotional need is how the customer feels about the situation. They might be frustrated that the software isn’t working. Perhaps they’re anxious because the problem is preventing them from getting important work done.

Customer service reps are usually good at spotting rational needs, but emotional needs are easily missed. That’s because the rational need is connected to action. Helping the customer fix their software is what the technical support rep does. The rep doesn’t feel the customer’s emotions, so they’re more difficult to spot.

Here’s the rub

 It’s the emotional needs that can make or break the customer’s experience. If the technical support rep can successfully validate the customer’s frustration by empathizing with them and then reassure the customer that they can help them, the customer will likely feel better. On the other hand, the customer won’t be happy if their software gets fixed but they’re annoyed and frustrated by the process.

Research conducted by Bård Tronvoll at Hedmark University College in Norway reveals that 97 percent of service failures also result in negative emotions for customers.

These negative emotions must be addressed since it’s ultimately how customers feel about your service that determines whether or not they’ll come back. For example, a survey of airline passengers whose flights were cancelled showed that how the cancellation was handled had more than twice the impact on customer satisfaction as the cancellation itself.

Spotting and reacting to customers’ emotional needs can take a little practice. Here are three techniques that can help you develop your skills.

  1. Tune in. Many people miss their customers’ emotions because they’re just not looking for them. Try to be mindful of the emotions your customers’ might be feeling. Pay close attention to their body language and tone of voice to find clues that reveal their emotions.
  2. Prioritize emotional needs. How customers feel about your service is ultimately more important than the actual service you provide, so make emotions the top priority when serving customers. Let an angry customer vent before solving their problem. Reassure a confused customer before helping them out. Share a laugh with an upbeat, light-hearted customer before getting down to business.
  3. Refocus on solutions. When there is a problem that makes a customer angry, try to avoid focusing on blame. Dwelling on the source of negative emotions often makes them even worse. Acknowledge your customers’ emotions to validate their feelings and then refocus the conversation on finding a solution and making them feel better.

Identifying and taking care of your customer needs emotionally isn’t always easy, but it’s a skill that can help elevate your customer service and leave a lasting impression.