Deconstructing the Screams – The Emotional Component of Customer Service Skills


A few days ago, I was drinking my morning coffee, skimming through my internet news updates when two headlines struck me – “Temper Tantrum Study: Children’s Episodes Involve Intertwined Feelings Of Anger, Sadness” and “What’s Behind A Temper Tantrum? Scientists Deconstruct The Screams.”

“Deconstruct the Screams”?  Now that caught my attention – definitely worth a look.  My kids are 16 and 14 now, but maybe the articles would tell me how I handled the terrible twos phase all wrong or by chance, right, so I poured another cup and took a closer look.

The study’s co-author Michael Potegal explained, “Screaming and yelling and kicking often go together … throwing things and pulling and pushing things tend to go together … crying, whining, falling to the floor and seeking comfort … also hang together.” 

Okay, so far I haven’t read anything I didn’t already know, but I keep reading.  To summarize, screaming and yelling means you’re angry, crying and whining means you’re sad.  Nothing earth-shattering here, but then I hit this line – “Research suggests the emotions are more intertwined than separate.”

Intertwined?  What exactly is the relationship between anger and sadness and any other emotion?  This relationship doesn’t just go away when we become adults, does it?  Do we just learn to manage our anger, sadness and emotions better in our relationships with others as adults?  When my kids become adults, will they not pitch fits because I ignored their writhing and flopping on the floor in aisle 10 because I said no to purchasing the box of Sweetarts when they were three?  Do we just keep all our emotions in check in our relationships with others?

In the customer service world, consumer emotions drive the entire experience.  So what exactly do we do about angry and frustrated adult consumers?  Are there sudden unexpected events or disappointments that ultimately trigger anger in adults, more specifically customers?  If so, how can we handle those outbursts?

Thinking about all of this reminded me of a customer service incident involving our daughter’s tennis coach.  I’ll call him Diego.  Diego is from Argentina and is the proud owner of a beautiful Golden Retriever mix named Cosi.  Cosi just showed up one day near Diego’s apartment, and they quickly became quite a pair.

So here’s what happened.  Diego is flying to Argentina for a long stay with his family.  He and Cosi are all set for the trip.  Cosi is in his travel crate, which will be placed in a special climate-controlled section of the cargo hold in the plane, all his paperwork for international travel, health information … they are ready to go.  Diego arrives in plenty of time at the airport only to be told at the counter that Cosi cannot travel that day because the weather forecast calls for the official temperature to be two degrees too warm in Miami for animals to ride in the cargo hold.

After Diego is told Cosi cannot make the trip, the conversation between Diego and the airline agent goes something like this:

Diego: “What do you mean?  I don’t understand.  Could you please explain that again to me?”

Agent: “I am sorry sir, your dog is not allowed to fly today because it is too hot in Miami.”

Diego: “Too hot?  What does that mean?  What is too hot?”

Agent: “The forecast indicates it will be two degrees too hot.”

Robert: “What is too hot?”

Agent: “Two degrees over the limit.”

Diego: “How come I wasn’t told about this when I called on the phone?”

Agent: “I don’t know sir.  Did you ask about temperature restrictions?”

Diego: “How was I supposed to know to ask about temperature restrictions if I didn’t know they existed?”

Agent: “Sorry sir, as I said, your dog can’t fly today.  Are you going to fly today or not?”

At this point Diego is frustrated and upset over the news that Cosi will not be allowed to fly with him.  He is stressed at the thought of boarding the plane without Cosi and worried about what he is going to do with Cosi just two hours before the flight.  Diego isn’t a toddler, but I’d say emotions are certainly intertwining here.  He explodes in anger.

Diego: “What!?!  This is ridiculous.  I can’t believe this b***s***!  Did you ever think that giving your customers information like this ahead of time might be helpful?”

Diego kicks the desk a couple times, and the agent calls “Next, please.”  Of course, Diego’s anger didn’t do any good – kicking the desk didn’t all of a sudden change the agent’s mind and allow Cosi to travel.

Could this entire situation have been avoided?  Are there customer service skills that could have been deployed to produce a better outcome?

For one thing, the agent should have listened to Diego’s story for understanding, which would have revealed Diego’s emotional need related to the interaction.  At first, his emotional need was making sure his furry companion would be safe, secure and comfortable for the trip.  After the agent delivered her news about the temperature restrictions, Diego’s emotional need shifted in a sudden and dramatic way.  Diego became overwhelmed with stress because of the pending separation from his dog and worry about what he could or would have to do to solve his dilemma.  To add more fuel to an already intense emotional fire, Diego was furious about not knowing this crucial piece of temperature information in advance.

The agent did nothing to address Diego’s emotional need.  She focused only on Diego’s initial practical need, which was to handle Cosi’s travel arrangements.  Suddenly that practical need changed to figuring out who could take care of Cosi while Diego was in Argentina.  Once the agent determined she wouldn’t allow Cosi to fly that day and hit Diego with this devastating news, she clearly didn’t care about any other issues Diego might be facing as a result.  Those were his problems to solve, right?

Now, back to the Tantrum article.  “The study co-author Michael Potegal suggests there is a way for parents to stick through it: Don’t do a thing.” Ignoring is precisely the tactic the agent used, rather unsuccessfully, with Diego.  And while that tactic may work well with a toddler, diffusing a heated customer service situation with an adult calls for a specific set of customer service skills and behaviors to be applied purposefully by the agent.

Before learning and effectively using the right set of customer service skills, a customer service agent must have an awareness of and appreciation for the emotional dynamic of the customer experience.  The agent must be able to engage her customer in a way that eliminates emotional barriers and creates emotional buy-in on the part of the customer.  Sadly, most customer service agents not only lack the necessary customer service skills to effectively meet customers’ emotional needs during a customer service experience, they also have an inadequate understanding of and appreciation for how critical the emotional dynamic is in shaping the outcome of the customer experience.  Companies that focus more time, energy and resources on meeting their customers’ emotional needs are more successful in generating loyalty in their customer bases.

In additional to addressing the customer’s practical and emotional needs, customer service agents need to provide a low-effort experience for the customer.  Customers want companies to be easy to do business with.  When an agent’s customer service skills focus on these three elements, Net Promoter Score (NPS) and other loyalty metrics can improve dramatically.

If you are wondering how things turned out for Cosi, well, he came to stay with us for two months and had a blast.  He eventually made it back to Argentina, thanks in part to a different airline, lower temperatures and a much less stressful customer service experience for his owner.



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About Laura Meredith

Laura Meredith is the Director of Public Relations at Pretium.

2 Responses to “Deconstructing the Screams – The Emotional Component of Customer Service Skills”

  1. David Jacques December 20, 2011 at 1:38 am #

    Good article. Understanding the emotional state of the customer is important for resolution. However this probably is not the first time a customer is surprised by the policy. I would add that it could have been avoided in the first place if information about previous similar experiences would have been passed on to relevant departments to do something about it, whether it is to properly inform travelers ahead of time or some other solution.

  2. David Jacques December 20, 2011 at 1:34 am #

    Good article! I mig

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