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Customer-facing employees must possess emotional intelligence

Article published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on March 20, 2023.

The benefits of emotional intelligence to a leader’s success within an organization are well documented. What is less explored is how front-line customer-facing employees must have EQ to handle difficult interactions with the public.

For example, interactions between flight attendants and unruly passengers are frequently recorded on iPhones and appear in videos on YouTube. Dealing with volatile passengers requires a high level of emotional intelligence. The safety of passengers as well as the reputation of the company depends on how effectively these situations are handled by flight attendants.

The need for emotionally intelligent police officers is also of critical importance in maintaining the respect of the communities they patrol. They frequently make split-second life and death decisions. How they treat those they interact with will face scrutiny by their superiors and by the public. Hiring an individual without emotional intelligence to fill the role of a police officer is a recipe for disaster.

At times the issue is with the employee and not the customer. The most vivid example of an employee lacking emotional intelligence occurred in April 2018 when a Starbucks barista in Philadelphia had two black customers arrested because they wouldn’t leave the café. They told the barista they were waiting for a colleague to arrive before ordering anything. The incident made international headlines and damaged the Starbucks brand with calls to boycott the company.

Quoting from the Starbucks Values Statement, “With our partners, our coffee and our customers at our core… We live these values, creating a culture of warmth and belonging, where everyone is welcome.” Perhaps not so for everyone at this Starbucks that day.

So, what is emotional intelligence?  Daniel Goleman, a professor at Rutgers University, wrote a 1998 Harvard Business Review article in which he identified five components of EQ that are key traits of effective leaders. These are also applicable to front-line customer-facing employees engaging with the public:

  • Self-awareness: The ability to recognize and understand your moods, emotions and drives, as well as their effect on others.
  • Self-regulation: The ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses and moods … to think before acting.
  • Motivation: A passion to work for reasons that go beyond money or status.
  • Empathy: The ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. Skill in treating people according to their emotional reactions.
  • Social Skill: Proficiency in managing relationships and building networks. An ability to find common ground and build rapport.
Photo credit: VM

How do Goleman’s five components of EQ translate into the skills that you should look for in the people you hire? These are applicable to all potential hires, especially to those that will become front-line customer-facing employees:

Possesses common sense and good critical judgment

In unstructured situations, how will a front-line employee react, especially if a volatile situation falls outside an established operating procedure? They will fall back on their experiences, common sense and good critical judgment and do the right thing to bring the situation to a good outcome.

Has the ability to defuse rather than escalate a situation

You always want to hire people who will defuse volatile situations rather than escalate them. This is especially important if the member of the public they are dealing with is becoming agitated or could become violent.

Can control their emotions

People with emotional intelligence can control their emotions so they can guide a difficult situation to a good outcome. One should always treat a disruptive individual with respect and attempt to reason with them in a calm manner. 

Recognizes how they are perceived by others

Front-line customer-facing employees need to recognize how their words, body language, verbal tone and actions are read by others. If the way they are being read is not desired or effective, they should know to change. They should be able to determine how they are perceived by other people’s subtle or not-so-subtle cues.

Doesn’t communicate with others in a way that puts them on the defensive

You should look to hire people who communicate in a way that makes people feel respected and valued. They should listen to disruptive individuals and asks questions for understanding. 

Understands the unintended consequences of their actions

Actions that are not thought out will result in bad consequences. This occurs much too often. The decision of the Starbucks barista to call the police on two black customers who had not yet ordered is only one example of not understanding the consequences of her action.

There are many commercial tests available that can assess emotional intelligence. Use them to hire people for front-line customer-facing positions. Selecting the right people for these jobs is crucial for successful outcomes when engaging with the public.

Stan Silverman is founder of Silverman Leadership and author of “Be Different! The Key to Business and Career Success.” He is also a speaker, advisor and widely read nationally syndicated columnist on leadership. He can be reached at

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