Can Emotional Connection Be Taught?

Beth Aarons, Global Director of the Dorchester Collection Academy, looks at the importance of embedding a culture of emotional connection in the workplace to drive employee engagement and exceptional customer service levels.
Emotional Connection

Founder of Starbucks, Howard Schultz, is quoted as saying: “Where companies could once spread their message through traditional marketing, consumers now seek an enduring emotional connection with the companies they patronise.”

While I agree in part, I’d argue that consumers have always wanted this connection. A connection which provides not only a more positive customer experience, but offers such things as status validation, reinforcement of values and an association which confirms they make good choices.

I believe this, perhaps, because I’ve spent my career working in the hospitality sector. A sector where emotional connection is the make or break.

Emotional connection is intrinsically linked to customer service. The stronger the connection, the better the service. The better the service, the greater the loyalty.

Though it seems only now are businesses outside of the service sector understanding the impact a strong emotional connection with their customers has on performance. I’ve mentioned loyalty, which leads to commercial success. But also things such as forgiveness when things don’t go to plan. When you have emotionally-based relationships you’re more likely to sustain the challenges. Equally, the stronger the connection the better the communication with customers; meaning when planning new products or services, it’s likely you’ll get them right first-time.

Creating this type of connection is no mean feat. But it’s not impossible. With the right approach and infrastructure, people can be taught to create true emotional connections.

The starting point is the culture. If the business wants to be an emotionally connected organisation, what does that look like and feel like? How does the organisation need to behave to demonstrate what it believes in? This lies with the leadership team to define and create something that they, and their people, can truly believe in.

But this is merely the beginning.  Thereon in the hard work begins. How do you make it live and breathe? How do you change behaviour, communication, structure?  How do you work together, how do you deal with day-to-day operations? There’s an awful lot of work that the leadership team need to commit to, to ensure a relationship-led service is embedded.

Unfortunately, this is where it so often falls down. Switching from transactional service towards emotional relationships can suddenly become too difficult, too complex. Resistance to change may occur. But tinkering on the edge isn’t going to be a transformation. And with high consumer expectation, transactional service isn’t going to be sustainable in the long-term.

If leaders want a major change which will sustain the business, there must be significant investment. Not necessarily in financial terms, but their time, their availability, their commitment.

Leaders need to understand their involvement and the impact they have. And if they don’t support it, or agree, that needs to be worked through and alignment sought before any attempts to embed a new emotionally-led culture can be begin.

Once this is achieved then the first steps have been taken towards an emotionally connected workforce.

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In my experience, to achieve complete embedment these areas need to be addressed:

Self-Awareness: Creating an emotional connection requires self-awareness. If an individual cannot recognise how their behaviour impacts upon the relationship, or modify their approach based on how their customer is communicating/behaving, this is detrimental. Therefore, helping people to understand the impact of their words, style of communication, and most importantly, listening, allows them to use this to their advantage.

Head, Heart, and Stomach: There’s a great deal of research about the power of the ‘little brain’ within your stomach. Here, over 100 million neurons can be found, which according to BBC Health, is the same number within a cat’s brain. These neurons allow the stomach to stay in contact with the brain, through the vagus nerves, which often influence our emotional state. When people use language such as “It doesn’t feel right”, this is your stomach telling you to listen. When these stomach emotions are combined with those found in the head and the heart, this is when you experience a true emotional connection to something or someone.

Trust: Only with total trust can great service flourish. Creating an emotional connection requires an individual to be empowered to make the right decisions in that moment, and for leaders to wholeheartedly support this.  Empowerment as it used to be had boundaries, yet the more you put up barriers, the more concerned employees will be about following a process and less likely to build a connection. They will be too focused on the limitations, rather than listening and understanding the person before them.

I advocate free reign and recommend using values as the moral compass. If you trust people, provide them with great training so they understand the values and, most importantly, what they mean in practice.  Then, more often than not, they will make the right decision.

Communication: What sits around all of this is open, honest dialogue so people feel they can make decisions and share them without having to hide. If they know it’s transparent, and they aren’t going to be reprimanded, they will have more confidence in their next interaction. The minute people are chastised for something that didn’t fit the process, all trust is lost. I encourage a mentoring/coaching approach; whereby together there’s a review of the decision against the values and a clear understanding of the thinking behind it.

Skill of the facilitator: The facilitator’s role is to create long-lasting change in behaviour. To do so they need to listen and create stories which help people understand the impact. Being flexible is crucial; responding to the dynamics of the team and adjusting the message so that every single learner in the room understands what an emotional connection is and how they can achieve this in their role. Having worked with a wide variety of business, the facilitators we have within the Dorchester Collection Academy (DCA), have a distinct advantage at they can adapt to the group, win their trust and build relationships quickly.

Experiential approach: To understand emotional connections, you need to experience them.  At the DCA the service given to delegates is reflective of the service we would like them to deliver when they return to their own businesses. We consider their arrival, the welcome, dietary requirements, their onward journey and their follow-up back in the business. We know people by name, we network with them and get to know them. All of that is the luxury and emotional experience that we’re attempting to teach. For some, this creates a magical ‘ah-ha!’ moment when suddenly they realise what it really means to deliver exceptional customer service.

These moments can be created by internal training teams as we have done within Dorchester Collection. However, it’s not always possible or practical due to business constraints, resources and workloads. This is where a business may consider working with a training provider, such as the DCA, which undertakes to understand the business and create a unique programme while operating as an extension of the brand to make a difference.

Creating emotional connections is something which will only become more and more important as we see technology transform the world. It can’t be done overnight and needs total commitment from the business. However, get it right and you can create a sustainable business with longevity.


This article was originally published in two parts in the Training Journal in July 2018.


Beth Aarons

Beth Aarons

Global Director, Dorchester Collection Academy

Beth Aarons – Global Director, Dorchester Collection Academy, will be your project manager and will help develop the programmes and liaise with you at defined intervals. Beth has over 25 years’ experience as both a strategic and operational HR Director in the luxury hospitality environment in the UK and in Europe. With a focus on talent management, Beth has worked in complex, matrix/multi-site organisations. She has developed people strategies in line with the corporate mission, vision and values and has helped to develop a clear company culture, which is reflected in those values. As a result she has been able to impact on bottom line profit and maximise the skills in the business to ensure the delivery of exceptional customer service. Some of her specialist areas include: business openings, managing rapid company change, and delivery of commercial, behavioural and management programmes.