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Using Strong Emotional Intelligence to Manage Conflicts: A Case Study

Many organizations focus on strengthening emotional intelligence (EI) of their management staff. While this is important, just as important is strengthening EI of all employees – at all levels, especially those employees who interact with customers. Strong emotional intelligence enables us to avoid or reduce conflicts and to manage through them when they do occur. Strong emotional intelligence enables for us to recognize our triggers and to recognize the triggers in others. With strong emotional intelligence, we can better communicate with others in a way that ensures respect for their position and their opinions; not necessarily agreement, but respect.

One of Abudi Consulting Group’s (ACG) clients, an organization that provides IT and desktop support services and has grown substantially over the last year, has noticed that there are an increasing number of conflicts between their customer service support personnel and their customers.
Some background
There are 8 customer service support personnel who support software and hardware for a US-wide customer base. Initially, customer service support personnel interacted with 2 – 3 key, large corporate customers each as well as taking turns responding to incoming support calls or emails from other customers. However, as the organization has grown, each customer service support employee now supports 4 – 6 key, large corporate customers each, and continues to take turns responding to support calls or emails. These corporate customers are demanding and usually require customer service staff to work close to 10 hour days. Add to that challenge the numerous calls and emails that come in from other customers. Targets for response times to corporate customers are short, effectively requiring immediate attention; phone calls must be answered by the second ring and emails responded to within 1 hour of receipt.

While the organization recognizes the need to hire additional staff, this will likely not happen for at least another 12 – 16 months given a number of other priorities. However, the organization cannot continue with these conflicts between customer support staff and customers without a serious impact to the bottom line.

Given the rapid growth, corporate customers are sometimes serviced by a customer service support person who is not their main point of contact. This can be stressful for these customers who have developed one-on-one relationships with the organization’s customer service employees. Having to deal with someone else has required more time on customer service calls.

Outcome from conversations

ACG scheduled conversations with the 8 customer service personnel, their managers and a few of the organization’s corporate customers with whom they had long term relationships.

Here is what we identified in these conversations. Nothing, by the way, was surprising.

  • Customers felt…
    • The level of service was not as high as previously.
    • The “loss” of their key point of contact for all issues made them perceive that the organization did not value their business.
    • The rapid growth in the organization was not their issue and they felt that there were suffering because the organization was understaffed.
  • Customer service personnel felt…
    • Overworked, tired and frustrated.
    • They lacked the tools to deal with angry and upset customers.
    • The organization did not appreciate the stress they were under.
  • Customer service personnel’s management felt…
    • Powerless to address the concerns of their staff.
    • Backed into a corner by their leadership to continue to provide the highest level of service with less resources.

Based on the information gathered from the conversations, and additional conversations with leadership and the learning and development group, we decided that helping the 8 customer service personnel get through the 12 – 16 months was essential. Many of these 8 customer service personnel were younger with limited experience in the workplace. For some, this was their first corporate role. In talking with them one-on-one, it was apparent that they did not handle less than positive interactions with customers well. They took it personally and tended to go into defense mode. They needed a better way to deal with their emotions and to deal with the emotions of their customers.

Next steps

Reflecting back on the situations which have occurred with these 8 customer service personnel and customers, we saw that an inability to recognize and manage emotions was a key driver to the conflicts which have occurred. Additionally, technology utilized to manage customers was outdated.

Emotional intelligence training

We decided that helping these 8 customer service personnel explore, understand, acknowledge and learn to use their emotions in the right way would be valuable to them in getting through the next 12 – 16 months. With emotional intelligence training and coaching, these 8 customer service personnel would be better able to…

  • recognize their emotional triggers and manage those triggers
  • manage their own emotions and therefore how they react when they are under stress
  • recognize and therefore manage the emotions of their customers
  • reduce and, if they arise, manage through conflicts and less than positive interactions

While certainly over the long term it would be necessary to hire more staff; these employees needed help and support in dealing with the challenges of their role now.

Technology needs

Separately, we realized that managers of these customer service employees needed support in pushing back on leadership about the conflict created in trying to achieve the highest level of service with less resources to do the job. While we weren’t proposing that the standards of customer service should be lowered, we did feel that there needed to be acknowledgement that during this temporary push to do more with less resources, we needed to support the efforts of the customer service personnel. This had to be from a bottom line perspective as that is what would engage senior leadership.

An analysis of technology showed that the tool in use by the customer service personnel was limited and outdated. It worked when the organization was much smaller; but was ineffective now.

We worked to make the business case that an improvement in the technology used to track and manage customer calls and interactions would support these 8 customer service personnel to manage a much larger and demanding customer base as well as enable for better understanding and tracking of customer issues.

We also highlighted that as the organization continued to grow, the technology would enable for better support and management of customers, thereby providing a competitive advantage to the organization.

Six months later

We evaluated the number of conflicts after four months to see if we saw a reduction in customer complaints and met with the 8 customer service personnel and their managers to check in on their perceptions. We found the following:

  • Customer service personnel either successfully avoided getting into a conflict situation with a customer or reduced the impact/duration of the conflict if they did get into it.
  • Management reported fewer customer complaints due to perceived poor service and “attitudes” of customer service personnel.
  • The new technology enables for quicker response to customers because it did a better job routing customer calls or emails from non-corporate customers to personnel, thereby ensuring a more even distribution of support calls or emails.
  • The results of a survey to the corporate customers indicated that they had a higher satisfaction rate than the previous six months.

In Summary…

The ability to recognize our emotions and what triggers strong emotions, enables us to learn how to manage those emotions. Similarly, when we can recognize the emotions of others, we can avoid situations where we trigger their emotions and rather use that information to have better communication and collaboration with others, avoiding or reducing conflict overall.

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