Cornerstones of Effective Customer Service: Emotional Intelligence and Conflict Management

Welcome to the modern world of customer service, where confrontations increasingly resemble boxing matches!

You can picture a loud, brash, and entitled customer in the red corner and a poorly selected, ill-trained staff member in the blue corner.

According to the 2022 National Customer Rage Study: 

  • 74% of Americans reported product or service problems in the past year. That’s almost twice as many complaints compared to 1976. 
  • The survey also found that 43% of customers yelled or raised their voices in the context of service breakdowns, up from 35% in 2015. 

Is the Customer Always Right?

As you’ll recall, Cesar Ritz, the founder of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, coined the adage:

The customer is always right.

But in the shifting landscape of customer experience delivery, I prefer to say,

“Customers are sometimes wrong, but always the customer.”

Undeniably, customers all too often:

  • harbor unrealistic expectations
  • displace frustration from unrelated situations
  • become agitated
  • demean and verbally mistreat service professionals

How to Manage More Hostility

Leaders and frontline team members must remain calm and “in control “when customers aren’t.

By “in control,” I mean demonstrating compassion AND assertiveness. My mother put it this way:

“two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Recently, I had a front-row seat (as did all other shoppers) as a retail employee reacted to an angry customer with defensiveness and disgust. The situation then devolved into a full-blown yelling match between the team member and the customer. No one in management stepped in to mitigate the situation. Ultimately, security escorted the customer out of the building.

So, how can you decrease the likelihood that this scene will play out at your business?

Taking Action

Prioritize Emotional Intelligence in Hiring: Select for and develop emotional intelligence. The ability to empathize with customers, manage personal emotions, and maintain professionalism, even under pressure, is crucial for customer-facing team members. Ensure these qualities are high priorities during the selection process.

Invest in Conflict Management Training: Conflict management skills are not inherent; they require training and continuous honing. Invest time and resources to equip your staff with active listening, negotiation, and de-escalation skills. Also, role-play conflicts that team members may encounter.

Ensure Leadership Presence in Conflict Situations: As a leader, your response to conflict sets the tone for your team. You need to be present and prepared to step in when tensions rise. Leadership involvement helps to maintain a respectful environment and demonstrates to your staff that you will take a stand for what is right.

Shift the Conversation to a Safe Zone: When a dispute arises, move the conversation, if possible, to a calming location. This action demonstrates respect for the customer’s feelings, helps to de-escalate the situation, and prevents other customers from becoming involved.

Since the first step in any journey is honest self-reflection,

  • How well are you selecting for the emotional intelligence of your customer-facing employees?
  • Does your training provide opportunities to develop conflict management skills?
  • As a leader, where are you when conflict surfaces?

Your responses to these questions should guide a customer service culture that aligns with emotional intelligence and conflict management, ultimately benefiting your business and customers.

To learn more about de-escalating conflict and driving emotional intelligence, please contact me at

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Joseph A. Michelli, Ph.D. is a professional speaker and chief experience officer at The Michelli Experience. A New York Times #1 bestselling author, Dr. Michelli and his team consult with some of the world’s best customer experience companies.

Follow on Twitter: @josephmichelli

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