• July 15, 2019
  • By Ian Jacobs, vice president and research director, Forrester Research

Yes, Companies Can Influence Customer Emotion

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‘I’ll be your savior, steadfast and true/ I’ll come to your emotional rescue’ –The Rolling Stones (‘Emotional Rescue’)

We all seem to love a good public tussle, whether it’s the ephemeral beefing between rappers, a pay-per-view fight, or watching Becky in accounting blowing her top at the buffoons in sales who never wash their coffee cups. But when the CEOs of two major global companies tangle in the press, it is usually “bring the popcorn and pull up a seat” time. And we, the public, recently had an opportunity to add some garlic salt and thyme to those popped kernels (wait—is it just me that does that?) and take in a spectacle. It started when Oscar Munoz, the CEO of United Airlines, gave an interview with ABC News. When Munoz was asked about negative passenger experiences, he said:

“It’s become so stressful from when you leave, wherever you live, to get into traffic, to find a parking spot, to get through security. Frankly, by the time you sit on one of our aircraft...you’re just pissed at the world.”

Munoz makes it sound as if his company, his company’s processes, and his more than 85,000 employees have no way to influence their own customers’ experiences. In this view of the world, customer frustration is just some force of nature, passively riding roughshod over the poor, defenseless airline. It was a stark abdication of responsibility, and one coming from the head of a company that seems resigned to live in the headlines due to repeated customer service gaffes.

When asked about those comments by the public radio program Marketplace, Delta’s chief executive, Ed Bastian, seemed nonplussed by Munoz’s musings. He said simply, “I disagree. Those certainly aren’t Delta customers he’s speaking to.” Later in the interview, Bastian added, “This industry is about more than just airplanes and technology. It’s about people. And we have wonderful people that provide great service.”

Oooh. Deep CEO burn!

Which brings us back to the popcorn. I’d usually enjoy some good tit-for-tat from two gentlemen who each make eight-figure salaries; rich guys bickering should be the basis for its own TV network. Yeah, I know we already have C-SPAN for that. In this case, however, I just found the exchange tremendously disheartening.

Munoz and Bastian both imply that the emotional component of a customer’s perception of his experience with a company is important. That is the good news, and the first step toward solving a problem is recognizing that a problem exists. But neither CEO directly jumped on the issue of emotion, and that worries me. Forrester Research looked at the customer experience for thousands of consumers with hundreds of companies. Our research showed that across all 22 of the industries we studied, how experiences make customers feel has a bigger influence on their loyalty to a brand than the effectiveness of their interactions or the ease of those interactions. I discussed the role of emotion in some depth in my October 2018 column; the lessons in that column, however, remain opaque to these airline dudes.

In contact centers around the world, companies have started to equip customer service agents with tools specifically designed to improve the emotional experiences provided to customers. Real-time speech analytics tools provide agents with behavioral cues to help keep conversations on a positive emotional footing. Other analytics tools analyze the personalities and communication styles of both customers and agents and then use those personality profiles to connect customers to the agents best suited to help them in an emotionally satisfying manner.

If contact centers, the underfunded cost centers of enterprises, can shift their energies to focus on emotions, so can the rest of the enterprise. And it needs to start with CEOs like Munoz and Bastian.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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