The Emotional Challenge of Customer Service - Ideas for Leaders
Idea #726

The Emotional Challenge of Customer Service

This is one of our free-to-access content pieces. To gain access to all Ideas for Leaders content please Log In Here or if you are not already a Subscriber then Subscribe Here.
Main Image
Main Image


While high emotional intelligence helps people succeed in emotional labour jobs (where managing one’s emotions and the emotions of others is key), a variety of EI competencies are particularly important for customer service personnel.


Emotional Intelligence is the ability to recognize how emotions can affect your behaviour and thoughts, and the behaviour and thoughts of others, and given this awareness, helps you regulate your emotions.

Regulating your emotions is especially important in what psychologists label ‘emotional labour’ — work where employees and professionals have to be able to display the right emotions in face-to-face contact with others, and generate the right emotions in others, no matter the situation. For example, in caring professions, such as nursing, professionals have to express sympathy and concern and help patients under stress manage their emotions. In social control jobs, such as law enforcement, professionals need to be able to keep their emotions in check while interacting with others in an emotional state. And in customer service, emotions on both sides of the customer service desk need to be managed.

Given the emotional requirements of these types of occupations, one would expect that people successfully performing such emotional labour jobs would display higher emotional intelligence. 

Two researchers used a measure of emotional intelligence called the Emotional Capital Report (ECR) to assess the relationship between emotional intelligence and emotional labour. Specifically, the ECR measures 10 emotional and social competencies: self-knowing; self-confidence; self-reliance; straightforwardness; self-actualisation; relationship skills; empathy; adaptability; self-control; and optimism.

In their study, the researchers surveyed 5800 participants on these 10 social and emotional competencies, correlating the results to their occupations. Approximately 3200 of the participants had high emotional labour occupations (e.g., sales person, management consultant, travel agent, human resources professional), while 2600 participants had low emotional labour occupations (e.g., military personnel, engineer, accountant, IT technicians, clerical work, financial services professional).


The study confirmed the correlation between emotional labour and emotional intelligence. People with higher emotional intelligence will be better able to know when to share emotions and when to alter the emotions as needed. 

Based on the results, emotional intelligence seems particularly important for successful customer service personnel. Participants in customer-facing occupations scored higher than other participants on 8 out of the 10 competencies in the ECR. Once can see the various competencies at work in customer service. First, you need to be self-aware about your own emotions (thanks to competencies such as self-knowing, self-reliance, self-actualization and self-confidence) and then be able to alter your emotions and manage customers’ emotions (through EI competencies of adaptability, relationship skills and optimism). 

For the other two competencies, empathy and self-control, there was no difference in the results among all three types of emotional labour occupations. Empathy and self-control appear to be core EI requirements across the board of such occupations.

For customer service occupations, however, the higher the number of EI competencies one possesses, the better the chances for success. Choosing individuals with high emotional intelligence for such jobs, or investing in their emotional intelligence development, is therefore essential.



  Martyn Newman’s profile at Sheffield Hallam University
  Kenneth H. Smith’s profile at Australian Catholic University


Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Labour: A Comparison Study Using the Emotional Capital Report (ECR). Martyn Newman & Kenneth H. Smith. Education and Society (2014). 

Ideas for Leaders is a free-to-access site. If you enjoy our content and find it valuable, please consider subscribing to our Developing Leaders Quarterly publication, this presents academic, business and consultant perspectives on leadership issues in a beautifully produced, small volume delivered to your desk four times a year.


Idea conceived

January 31, 2014

Idea posted

Jan 2019
challenge block
Can't find the Idea you are after?
Then 'Challenge Us' to source it.


For the less than the price of a coffee a week you can read over 650 summaries of research that cost universities over $1 billion to produce.

Use our Ideas to:

  • Catalyse conversations with mentors, mentees, peers and colleagues.
  • Keep program participants engaged with leadership thinking when they return to their workplace.
  • Create a common language amongst your colleagues on leadership and management practice
  • Keep up-to-date with the latest thought-leadership from the world’s leading business schools.
  • Drill-down on the original research or even contact the researchers directly

Speak to us on how else you can leverage this content to benefit your organization.