The challenge that organizations have is that they haven’t trained, rewarded or permitted their frontline employees to exert emotional labor to create human connection when it’s most needed. Seth Godin
Now and then I come across a quote which makes me stop and think. Here’s why this one brought the local customer experience to mind.
Most Jamaicans who travel to the United States are struck by how well-trained service workers are. At first blush, it appears that they really know how to smile, be polite and seem interested.
However, those who end up staying to live in North America tell a different tale. They recall a discovery: five minutes after a seemingly meaningful interaction the provider can’t remember your face or name. It was all an act.
Where it comes from is obvious – those who have peeked behind the scenes say it’s the result of thorough training tightly coupled with swift, harsh consequences for non-compliance. It gets the right behaviour, but does it produce genuine feelings?
Contrast that situation with the experience of tourists who visit Jamaica repeatedly for several years, making lifelong friendships which start with chance encounters on the beach, village or bus. These extraordinary, unscripted stories end up bonding entire families from different cultures. Sometimes, they even cross generations, in spite of the geographic distance.
How can these two contrasting experiences be reconciled by you, a manager who must develop staff to serve local customers? Godin’s quote offers a few clues.
1. Faking isn’t Creating
I suspect that frontline workers in the US have been trained to “fake human connection” on demand – to go through the motions, following a set of actions they have memorized and practiced. Unfortunately, they also haven’t learned to separate true emotion from fakery.
How to get past this obstacle?
If you believe that your front-line workers are acting the part but not actually creating authentic experiences, they may need deeper training. Noticing real emotions in the middle of a transaction isn’t easy, especially when the customer is upset. Most of us can’t: it takes a kind of emotional maturity few possess.
2. Doing Feeling Work
However, when we bump into someone who can regularly provide this experience in the worst of circumstances, we tend to think of their emotional maturity as a rare gift or talent. Unfortunately, this explanation puts them up on a pedestal, far beyond the reach of the unlucky majority.
Godin implies that this thinking is false.
“Emotional labour” is really what’s missing, he explains. It’s the trained effort most companies’ leaders just can’t be bothered to develop – the expense is too high. Their lack of care begins with haphazard hiring and continues with non-existent onboarding. Employees who receive this basic training are left to their own devices, never given the tools to produce emotional results. Then, when problems occur, most managers simply blame the employee: they fail to accept responsibility.
But Godin goes further: he hints that many companies don’t even “permit” their front-line employees to provide emotional labour. They actually make it hard.
Have you ever received a quiet act of kindness from an employee who put themselves in harm’s way to make an exception in your case? That’s someone who is working around the limits implemented by a blind, callous leadership.
3. Identifying Moments
These subversives are not only brave, but wise. They can tell when a human connection is most needed and act decisively to provide it.
But they aren’t just interesting: these moments are extraordinary opportunities to create lasting loyalty. Perhaps they explain why these tourists return to visit their newfound “family” in Jamaica. Their initial link was so positive, and so unexpectedly real, that they end up feeling closer to a Jamaican front-line worker than their actual neighbours or office colleagues.
Can workers be trained to identify these key moments in a customer’s experience?
They can, but if your employees have childhoods pock-marked with trauma, it’s much harder to do so. Unfortunately, given the low pay of our service providers, many have experienced such hardships and won’t get over them on their own.
If management steps in and provides the counselling, training and coaching needed to move past these obstacles, everyone benefits. The fact is, employees who are being trained to emotionally labour on behalf of customers who need a human connection need to deal with their own wounds first.
This puts them in the driver’s seat: able to respond to the customer without their history getting in the way. Now, they can deliberately create the kind of deep loyalty customers enjoy but rarely experience. It’s emotional labor which provides a win for all concerned.