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.

Emotions: the next frontier in customer service efficiency

It's not always easy to act happy.

It's not always easy to act happy.

Many frontline customer service jobs have two things in common. First, the pay is low with many starting at minimum wage. Second, they require a high degree of emotional labor.

The market for emotional labor may be cheap, but it’s also woefully inefficient. 

I know it’s hard to make a business case for making your people feel better, but there’s always money to be made in efficiency. Companies love efficiency. This post explores how companies use emotional labor ineffeciently, the high costs associated with this problem, and explores some possible solutions.


What is emotional labor?

Here’s a brief explanation of emotional labor from a recent blog post about why customer service reps aren’t friendly:

“Emotional labor is a term initially coined by Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. It refers to the effort required to display appropriate workplace emotions, such as friendliness and enthusiasm. The amount of emotional labor required is based on the difference between the emotions an employee is expected to display, and the emotions an employee actually feels.”

Think about the emotional labor that’s often required in customer service. Employees are expected to convey positive emotions to customers regardless of whether they actually feel this way. They must even remain calm and professional even when a customer treats them as a verbal punching bag and avoid taking it personally.

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know this isn’t always easy.


Cheap, but not efficient

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that emotional labor is inversely correlated to hourly wages. The higher the level of emotional labor a job requires, the less that job is likely to pay. Examples come from customer service employees as well as other professions such as social workers, bill collectors, and 911 operators. 

Customer service employees don’t get paid much to act happy.

Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean efficient. There are also substantial costs associated with high degrees of emotional labor. These costs may offset or even surpass any savings associated with low wages. 

Here are just a few examples from high-stress customer service jobs:

  • Turnover. It costs a lot to hire and train employees, even cheap ones.
  • Absenteeism. Extra employees are required when people call out.
  • Productivity. People get less done when they feel emotionally drained.
  • Customer Satisfaction. Service quality suffers when emotions run high.

All of these costs negatively impact profitability.


Improving emotional labor efficiency 

Companies often improve efficiency by finding ways to reduce consumption. This strategy works brilliantly for emotional labor. Happy employees require less effort to project the right customer service personality.

Employee engagement is the key to reducing your emotional labor consumption. Engaged employees are overwhelmingly happy in their jobs. They are also highly committed to helping the company achieve its goals. 

Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report found that having engaged employees greatly reduced the costs associated with high emotional labor requirements. On average:

  • Turnover is 25% lower
  • Absenteeism is 37% lower
  • Productivity is 21% higher
  • Customer Satisfaction is 10% higher
  • Profitability is 22% higher

That's the business case. Your executives won't listen to a touchy-feely argument about employee happiness, but you'll capture their attention when you start the conversation with numbers they care about. Efficiency is efficiency.

Improving employee engagement isn’t easy, but I’ve assembled a short reading list to help you get started.

  • This post on the using the Employee Engagement Cycle will give you a strategic view of employee engagement. There’s even a short quiz to help you start the conversation.


  • Some customers require an unreasonable amount of emotional labor from your employees. Consider asking them to take their business elsewhere. Seth Godin has a nice and simple explanation.


  • Customer service leaders in low-margin industries like Trader Joe’s and Costco have found it’s more efficient to pay a higher wage so they can attract better employees. This post explores whether you should consider giving your employees a raise.

When I wrote my customer service book, Service Failure, it took me some time to find the right words to end the final chapter. I finally found a sentence that I think applies here quite well:

Above all else, customer service leaders must remember that while customer service can be difficult, their job is to make great performance easy.

Keep that in mind when you are working with your employees. What can you do to make it easy for them to be happy?

Why customer service reps aren't friendly

Why is it so hard for customer service reps to be friendly?

Why is it so hard for customer service reps to be friendly?

This post originally appeared on the Salesforce Blog. You can also read my latest Salesforce blog post, " How detoxing our brains can improve customer service."


Friendliness is a basic expectation for employees serving customers. It doesn’t cost anything and isn’t really a skill that needs to be trained. So why do we still receive unfriendly service over and over again?

I remember walking into a furniture store with my wife, Sally. There was a cluster of employees having a conversation at one end of the store when we arrived. Nobody stopped to greet us. We didn’t see anything exciting so we decided to leave after a few minutes.

One of the employees finally approached us as we left. “Can I help you?” he said tersely. No thanks, we’re just leaving. The employee obviously sensed that a lack of service had hastened our exit. “Hey! We’ve been here for 12 hours! Give us a break!”

Sally and I noticed a sign in the window for the first time as we left the store:

Going out of business sale! Everything must go!

We had a good laugh as we imagined we might have just identified the cause of the store’s demise.


The root cause of unfriendly service

It’s easy to get stuck thinking about what employees like the guy at the furniture store should have done. I think that answer is obvious. A more important question is why wasn’t he friendly?

One explanation is something called emotional labor.

Emotional labor is a term initially coined by Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. It refers to the effort required to display appropriate workplace emotions, such as friendliness and enthusiasm. The amount of emotional labor required is based on the difference between the emotions an employee is expected to display, and the emotions an employee actually feels.

Simply put, it’s hard to be friendly if you don’t feel friendly.

Let’s go back to the furniture store. The employees were likely to lose their jobs after the store closed. It was difficult to take pride in their store since the merchandise grew less and less appealing as inventory was sold off. The employees felt tired from working long hours for a losing cause. It’s easy to imagine that they didn’t feel particularly friendly that day. This doesn’t excuse the poor service we received, but understanding the employees’ perspective does explain why it might have happened.

There are plenty of reasons why employees might not feel friendly. Upset customers, heavy workloads, demanding bosses, and poor products can all make an employee feel frustrated. This says nothing about what types of stress may be going on in employees’ personal lives. “Leave your problems at home” is simplistic advice that’s much easier said than done.

Contact centers often provide a great example of a work environment that can bring many of these factors together. Agents may feel frustration sinking in when they serve irate customer after irate customer. At the same time, their boss is breathing down their neck demanding greater productivity while monitoring their every move, even bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, agents might feel powerless to solve many of the problems they encounter that are caused by defective products or poorly designed processes.

Some employees just don’t like their jobs and feel miserable every day they go to work. I recently talked to a customer service employee who had great skills but a sour attitude. She confided in me that she absolutely hated her job! She had been hired into another position, which she liked, but her boss recognized her obvious talent by promoting her into a new role she couldn’t stand.


How to help service employees be friendlier

The best customer service leaders make it easy for employees to be friendly.

It starts by setting a positive example. Employees are much more likely to be friendly when they have a boss who is friendly, kind, and treats them with respect. On the other hand, gruffly telling employees to “act happier or you’ll be written up” rarely has the desired effect.

Another important strategy is hiring employees who will be happy to do what you want them to do. A company that sells covers for boats and RVs hired a boating enthusiast to work in their small customer service department. She was an immediate hit with her customers since she loved the job and could relate to the products. Her positive attitude even influenced an unfriendly co-worker who improved her own demeanor after working with the new employee.

Finally, involve employees in finding solutions to your toughest customer service challenges. This works in two ways. First, employees feel more empowered when they are able to give meaningful input on how to serve customers better. Second, working with upset customers requires a great deal of emotional labor so fixing the problems that upset customers naturally makes the job easier.

Debunking the myth that attitude is a choice

You may have heard the story about a Subway employee who lost his job after getting into a confrontation with a customer over ketchup. The short version of the story is a customer ordered a Philly cheesesteak sandwich with ketchup and an argument ensued when the employee insisted that Subway didn’t have ketchup. It nearly escalated into a physical altercation and the police were eventually called to the scene.

It’s tempting to look at the situation and conclude that the employee chose the wrong attitude.

If only it were that simple.

The truth is our attitudes can be trigged by involuntary or even unconscious emotions. Yes, there are still choices involved, but the choice is what we do next once we recognize these sour emotions within ourselves. The Subway employee lost his job because he didn’t make the right decisions once his bad attitude emerged.

Emotional Hijacking
I interviewed a nightclub employee named Paul while writing my book on hidden obstacles to customer service. One of the stories he shared was a telephone encounter with an angry customer who called to accuse a server of stealing his credit card number. Despite years of experience in hospitality, Paul found himself struggling with his emotions:

“I could feel my blood pressure going up. I could feel my face get flush. I felt like, ‘Don’t accuse my co-worker of doing something that you don’t know that they did.’ There was a million ways that credit card numbers get stolen. It was so frustrating to me.”

Paul knew the right thing to do was to project a calm and empathetic demeanor, but he struggled with this common sense because his emotions were running high. The customer’s pointed accusations caused Paul to experience what’s called an emotional hijacking, a situation where the emotional center of our brain becomes so consumed with powerful emotions that it temporarily takes over our ability to reason.

Unlike the now infamous Subway employee, Paul made the correct decision once he was aware of his negative emotions. He reminded himself to stay calm, took down the customer’s information with a promise to look into it, and quickly got off the phone before he lost his cool.

Unconscious Emotions
As hard as it may be to believe, there are times when we aren’t consciously aware of the emotions we are experiencing. In his book, Working with Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman likens this to a “social virus” where emotions are spread undetected from person to person.

These unconscious emotions can negatively affect a person’s body language and tone of voice. These are two of the most important ways we communicate our attitudes to others, so a customer service employee who is “infected” can signal customers that they are in a bad mood without fully being aware they feel this way.

Viewed from this perspective, expecting a customer service employee victimized by unconsciously communicated emotions to remain happy and upbeat is like trying to avoid getting the flu. You can take precautions to guard against it, but there’s no guarantee that you won’t be infected.

Fortunately, both positive and negative emotions can be unconsciously contagious. Positive employees naturally cause their co-workers to quickly recover from negative emotions. Happy customers also influence the people who serve them to do better. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to provide great products and services backed by customer-friendly policies that are less likely to create angry customers in the first place!

It can be a challenge for customer service employees to effectively manage their emotions, but it gets even more difficult when all they get from their supervisor is an admonition to avoid taking it personally. Employees need coaching and encouragement to continuously project the positive attitude their customers expect.