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Building the emotional intelligence that the empathy economy demands

Customer upset on the phone

Most airlines, hotels and car rental brands understand that the travel customer experience can be fun, but it can also be stressful. From missed connections and lost reservations, to delays and oversold flights, there are so many things that can go wrong along the journey.

Customer service agents are responsible for de-escalating these situations, but it’s not easy when the volume of inbound queries is increasing with the number of available support channels. Fortunately, stockpiles of text-based queries from email, social media and chat, are ideal for training artificial intelligence (AI) systems to handle simple and repetitive questions, freeing up human agents to handle more complex requests. A commensurate increase in agent training is needed, however, as customer service agents need to be well-versed in interpreting emotion and expressing compassion in today’s empathy-driven economy.

Anxiety vs. anger

When an issue arises, customers are often left on their own to connect the dots. For example, if a flight is delayed or a customer doesn’t get the hotel suite originally requested, they are not often told why, or what steps the company is taking to rectify the situation.

As Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, noted neuroscientist and author of How Emotions Are Made, explains, ambiguity often breeds anxiety, and anxiety is often (mistakenly) interpreted as anger. “The biggest mistake that I see made in airports and in hotels, is that the people serving the public assume that the signals for high arousal is anger, instead of anxiety at the unknown… This one single misunderstanding, really wreaks havoc and causes a lot of problems.”

Interpreting the difference is not always easy as people vary in how they process and reflect emotions. Cultural habits, learned behaviors and social context can lead individuals to project their emotions differently, ultimately impacting a customer service agent’s ability to read the situation correctly.

“[For example], when you’re on the phone, you can hear my voice as the customer, but you can’t see my face and expressions. If there’s some pressure in my voice, if the fundamental frequency of my voice is changing – you’re not going to know why”, says Dr. Feldman Barrett. “Similarly, I can’t tell what a pause means in the voice of a customer service agent. It could mean that they are waiting for information before answering me. It could mean that [they’re] judging me. The customer doesn’t know…That’s another source of ambiguity.”

Information is everything

The best way to combat ambiguity is through engaged listening and proactive communication. In fast-changing situations, it may seem imprudent to give customers all the information on hand at once, just in case things change. But, as Dr. Feldman Barrett explains, most people would rather know the minute-by-minute news than be kept in the dark.

She recommends sharing all relevant information available to help customers understand a situation — even if the information isn’t what the customer wants to hear. “If you want to have more empathy, the first thing that you need to do is understand that information is everything.”

Knowing why a problem is happening doesn’t change the outcome, but it does help diffuse stressful situations.

Empathy in the workplace

Shashank Nigam is founder of aviation-marketing strategy firm SimpliFlying and the author of airline-marketing bestseller Soar: How the Best Airline Brands Delight Customers and Inspire Employees. He’s made it his business to teach airlines how to use empathy to define their brand character, in everything from advertising and promotions to customer care.

Nigam believes that emotional intelligence in customer care comes down to company culture. “Scaling empathy is not just about standard operating procedures (SOP),” Nigam suggests. “It’s about empowerment and trust in your own staff. You don’t hire for aptitude, but for attitude. You emphasize empathy.”

One example Nigram shared is from Canadian airline, Westjet, involving a warm customer service approach to a ‘cold-blooded’ situation. “A young child intended to fly with their pet tortoise. Instead of an impersonal SOP reaction, a flight attendant reflected empathy with the child’s attachment to the pet, and promised to babysit the tortoise until the family returned,” says Nigram. “That earned the airline a lot of positive press on an issue that has recently caused negative press for others.”

Capitalizing on the empathy economy in travel and hospitality requires an investment in people as a resource, not just by hiring for the right set of skills but also by ensuring that team members are engaged.

“Persistent care-giving is considered a serious stressor that is related, over the long term, to a higher risk for physical and mental illness,” Dr. Feldman Barrett says. “There needs to be a hierarchy of support. If you really want your employees to provide support, you as an employer have to similarly provide them with support.”

Blending empathy and automation

While many travel brands are incorporating automation in their customer care approach, Dr. Feldman Barrett warns that the significant value of a human agent should not be overlooked. “We are social animals. Our nervous systems are built to regulate each other. Having somebody who is concerned and empathetic on the line or in a face-to-face interaction, or even over a Skype chat, is still the best investment for your money,” she adds.

People have an inherent need to be in charge of their circumstances, but travel often puts customers in situations that are beyond their control. It’s imperative that travel brands understand that while in their care, they have custody of their customers’ emotions. They must pay special attention to hire and train their team to deliver the requisite emotional support because at the end of the day, people need people.

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