Why can’t I talk to a human being? Balancing AI and EI in customer service teams
by Jill Pennington, Consultant Director, JCA Global Ltd
Our research shows a significant correlation between performance and elevated levels of EI in roles where there is high emotional labour (Hughes and Maddocks 2018). Where flexibility and working with others are key, EI measures are more predictive of performance than traditional personality tests.
So how can contact centre leaders ensure their teams are equipped to meet the challenges as well as embrace the benefits that AI will bring? We believe that this will be achieved by recruiting and developing skills in EI. People who have EI are adept at managing their personality to be personally and interpersonally effective. The Emotional Intelligence Profile framework shows the different levels and elements of EI.
Dialling up EI
When EI is dialled down across all or just some of these elements, our awareness of self and others goes down. Our ability to see options is reduced and we are more likely to come to work feeling like we just need to survive the day. Customer facing staff in this state are more likely to feel frustrated, powerless or even angry. Under threat they might see people as objects and fail to recognise the human being behind the angry or frustrated tone. Customer advisers may also see process and work requirements as constraints and are more likely to make excuses and blame the system, with resulting lacklustre customer service.
When EI is dialled up we are more aware of ourselves and others. Our mindset is positive and we are able to see options and choices. Customer facing staff in this state are more likely to feel motivated and empowered. They will be able to manage constraints responsibly and provide flexibility where they can to meet customer needs.
EI has multiple dimensions that are all relevant for customer facing roles. Take Self Regard and Regard for Others for example – they underpin EI and influence every interaction we have. Customer advisers with higher levels of Self Regard are more likely to be fully present when talking to customers, rather than listening to an inner voice telling them they can’t handle the conversation.
Self Regard also helps people be effective in the typical contact centre environment where performance is measured on a call by call basis. High Self Regard means customer advisers will cope well with this level of scrutiny and see it as an opportunity to learn and improve.
Regard for Others is another important attitude for advisers, who need to be genuinely concerned and interested in their customers. Advisers with a high Regard for Others will be less likely to judge customers when they express strong emotions such as frustration or rudeness.
How aware an adviser is of their own and the customers’ feelings is a key element of EI. The advance of AI means that customers who do get through to an adviser can be angry and exasperated. Being able to pick up on emotions is an obvious skill of a good adviser but the ability to understand how to manage their own emotional state, and the impact of those emotions on performance, is also vital. Recognising when they are low on energy or triggered into an unhelpful state enables them to manage how they are feeling, rather than just pushing on and suppressing their emotions.
A less obvious but important aspect of EI is the degree to which a person believes that they are in charge of and take sole responsibility for their outcomes. This is Personal Power and the more an adviser believes they have, the more responsibility they will take for responding to customer needs. They will be better able to identify the things they can control or influence and where they have flexibility to respond to customer requirements. Seeing that they have choice enables a positive, helpful attitude towards customers.
The good news is that EI can be measured and also developed. As can the climate created by contact centre leaders whose behaviour and attitude set the tone. Climate is distinct from culture. It is specifically about how it feels to work somewhere and is created by the leader or leadership team. For example, the extent to which individuals feel empowered to do what feels right whilst being clear about boundaries is largely down to how leaders set goals, provide feedback and support their teams.
Authenticity of leaders is also key in contact centres. Leaders with high Authenticity and high Regard for Others are more likely to stick up for what is right for customers, as well as their teams. When leaders are provided with EI development we see a change in the climate which in turn impacts employee engagement and customer service.
As we move into a digital age, there is little doubt that customers will still need to talk to human beings for more complex transactions. This requires greater EI in both customer facing and leadership roles. EI is one of things that makes us uniquely human and (for the time being at least) is less easily replicated than AI. Organisations wanting to stay ahead of the curve should place as much attention on EI as they do on technology.
Key EI attributes for contact centre teams
- Self Regard – the degree to which an individual accepts and values themselves.
- Regard for Others – how much a person accepts and values others (distinct from liking or approving of what they do).
- Self Awareness – the degree to which a person is in touch with their physiology, feelings and intuitions.
- Awareness of Others – the degree to which a person is in touch with the feelings of others.
- Personal Power – the degree to which a person believes that they are in charge of and take sole responsibility for their outcomes.
- Authenticity – how much an individual invites the trust of others by being principled, reliable, consistent and known.