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What is Emotional Intelligence, and Why Does it Matter?

It seems everywhere you turn; lately, there is a reference to Emotional Intelligence. What is it? Where did it come from? And how can it make a difference in your business? These are the questions we are going to answer, and you may be surprised at how much you already know.

What is Emotional Intelligence?

By definition, Emotional Intelligence is the level of a combination of five traits. Some people innately have a high EQ (measurement of EI just like an IQ), while others can be taught to improve these characteristics through training and expanding an understanding of their own emotions.

Emotional Intelligence

When determining a person’s level of EI, or EQ, five traits come into play-- Self Awareness, Self Regulation, Empathy, Motivation and Social Skills. We are going to take a more in depth look at each of these as we examine the benefits of a high EQ in your contact center.

Where did the term originate?

Emotional Intelligence may be more familiar to you as “soft skills” or being a “people person.” The term was first introduced by psychologist Daniel Goleman in 1995 in his book, Emotional Intelligence. The book became a bestseller and was popular with the general public. However, it has taken a while for the concept to find its way into the corporate world. Much like using mindfulness techniques in the workplace, most leaders are skeptical, and the idea of measuring EI has been slow to catch on.

In the customer service/contact center world, it is not a new concept, but a renaming of something we have always strived for, perhaps without even realizing it.

How can it make a difference in my contact center?

This is the question that really matters! In many cases, it is not really a question of how EI can enhance our KPIs, but how much of a priority EI should be. Is it the most important thing to screen for in hiring? Is it something to include in ongoing training? Does it make enough difference to deserve a high priority?  I believe the answer is "yes" to all of the above; however, adding an entirely new list of questions doesn’t respond to the initial inquiry.

If we take a look at each facet of EI and how it pertains to contact center life, it becomes obvious that there are massive benefits:

Self Awareness

Self Awareness is measured by how well you know your strengths, weaknesses, and emotions, as well as your acceptance of these to be true. It also includes being cognizant of one’s own moods and the impact they have on others. With a clear understanding of these things, one becomes more confident and recognizes their self-worth.

In a contact center setting, this is very important. It is best illustrated by something we have been telling customer service agents for many, many years: “Don’t take it personally!” Someone with a high EQ is not going to take the words of an angry customer personally or reciprocate the anger and feel they need to strike back or retaliate. Naturally, a call of that type will have a better outcome than a similar call with a less self-aware agent. The emotionally intelligent agent will be less likely to escalate the call. The call time for a call will probably be shorter as well; a really desirable outcome if AHT is an important KPI for your team!

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There are other ways high self-awareness can benefit agents and the entire contact center. How many times has one person’s cranky mood slowly but surely spread and harmed your whole team? It plays out not only in the room but on each phone call that each of those agents is on. Like that shampoo commercial back in the day, if she tells one person, they tell one person, and so on. It only takes one Grumpy Gus to bring down the mood of  everyone they interact with. But imagine that Gus is highly self-aware. He would undoubtedly recognize that toxic attitude and get it in check before he infected the room and the customers he faced.

Self Regulation

Self Regulation is the natural next step to Self Awareness. It is how you handle yourself and those emotions that you are aware of and understand. Also, high self-regulators can accept and handle things around them that are out of their control. This is essential in the contact center environment whether dealing directly with customers or with others on their team.

Someone who can regulate or control their moods and emotions well is going to be calm, confident and steady. They will not become overwhelmed when call volume spikes; they will not allow other attitudes or actions to unsettle them. They do not avoid tough subjects or confrontations, but rather meet them head on with determination to resolve. An agent that self-regulates well is more likely to be unflappable when trying to navigate multiple platforms and find answers for a customer. Keeping a good, calm head on your shoulders makes one naturally more efficient.


Empathy is the ability to recognize feelings and emotions in others, access and relate to similar scenarios from their own lives. The desire to hire people that can show empathy and holding workshops on how to exude more empathy have been staples in the call center environment since the dawn of time. It doesn’t take a genius to see why it is an important trait for any customer facing employee who is hired to solve problems. Honestly, as important as solving the customer’s problem is, showing empathy/sympathy and creating a relationship with the customer ranks just as high. Or at least it should. Empathy and sympathy are different animals, though close enough in spirit and practice to be interchangeable here. An upset customer that connects with an empathetic agent is more likely to calm down faster, build a rapport, and connect in a way that reflects well on your company. It breeds repeat customers, retains customers that were on the way out the door, and can give your CSAT an edge.


For EI, motivation refers to a person’s internal ability to take on new challenges, set attainable goals, and seize opportunities with a positive and optimistic outlook. This is an individual who is not necessarily financially motivated, but who gets jazzed by accomplishments and sharing the wealth with others. There's no need to point out why someone like this is ideal to have on any team; they are probably prime supervisory material.

Social Skills

In the context of EI, the term social skills not only covers the obvious interpersonal relationships, but also encompasses self-esteem, and the abilities to collaborate, cooperate, manage conflict, and have a positive influence on others. Social skills really are the compilation and execution of all the other EI traits. This is undoubtedly a highly desirable feature in a contact center setting, not only for the customer facing, customer service benefits but for the good of company culture and the team dynamic.

Where measuring an EQ falls on your hiring priority list is subjective. Whether we are conscious of it or not, our first impression of a candidate’s personality has always been the first and foremost goal when hiring customer service representatives; that’s just common sense. The game changer is that now there is more science behind evaluating this in someone. A quick Google search can find an array of screening tests to determine where a person’s EQ falls on the scale.

There are super in-depth tests as well as relatively quick and straightforward assessments that you can add to the vetting process. In fact, some would say Emotional Intelligence should be the first and foremost attribute to evaluate in candidates for customer facing jobs. It is not a guessing game any longer. Just because someone may give a good first impression and knows the correct answers to woo an interviewer, it doesn’t mean they possess sustainable traits that will make them an asset on your floor.

Why wouldn’t you move EI to the top of your priorities in hiring? Why wouldn’t you either find an assessment test that you like or at least frame the bulk of your interview questions around it?