A Feel for the Job

You can teach technical skills such as how to use software or machinery, but can you train employees to be intuitive? More companies are exploring how to help their workforce intuit customer needs. 

By Margery Weinstein

A recent Columbia University Business School study found that people who rely on their feelings and intuition make more accurate predictions and do better at their jobs. But it’s not as easy as it sounds. Training can help, particularly in teaching people how to slow down, increase self-awareness of internal energy processes, and find their connection to the world and the universe around them.

This can be especially important when it comes to customer service. Honing the ability to use intuition to literally get a feel for another person’s needs can lead to both personal and organizational success. Some companies are taking the next step, going from teaching hard skills to nurturing employees’ instincts for great customer service.

The “Need Behind the Need”

Part of tapping into intuition is understanding what your customers are interested in. Healthpoint Biotherapeutics does its best to prepare employees to sense what will capture their potential customers’ attention. “We have found, through our own internal research, most clinicians (especially physicians) typically see little or no value in clinician-sales representative interactions. While our competition continues to try to figure out how to more efficiently present features and benefits to their customers, we have gone the opposite direction,” says Director of Sales Training and Development Chris Stewart. “We spend a tremendous amount of training time focusing our representatives on different methods of opening calls with provocative, thought-provoking statements or questions that will result in customer engagement and the opportunity to uncover key clinical needs. By highlighting these key needs, our representatives are better able to position potential solutions that lead to strong, long-lasting customer relationships and fanatical loyalty to our brands.”

Indeed, Healthpoint coaches its sales force to get a sense for potential customers’ deep-seated business needs. “We coach our representatives to go past the ‘what’ and focus on the ‘why.’ For example, a customer expresses a need to debride (remove non-viable debris) from their patients’ wounds more quickly. Instead of immediately supporting that initial need, we coach our representatives to understand the ‘need behind the need,’” says Stewart. “By asking a few additional questions such as ‘How would a faster debridement method affect you and your patients?’ our representatives may find that the clinician is managing a large wound population and is feeling overwhelmed, or he is looking for ways to ease patient suffering. By uncovering the ‘need behind the need,’ our representatives are more likely to elicit an emotional response from their customer toward our brand, which is a stronger, more powerful incentive than simply using a product for its clinical attributes.”

Emotional Intelligence 
Key to Intuition

The ability to use intuition to understand what another person needs also is sometimes called emotional intelligence. An employee may be mathematically intelligent or have memorized the order of steps in a service formula, but emotional intelligence allows that person to understand underlying needs by interacting with the other person. “Understanding customer needs is the most important aspect of successfully delivering projects,” says Hariraj Vijayakumar, global head, Cognizant Academy at Cognizant. “Customer satisfaction is a function of how well customer needs are understood and addressed in a timely manner by every employee.” To achieve this goal effectively, Vijayakumar says, an employee must possess:

  • Sound knowledge of requirements gathering and management 
  • Good understanding of customers’ business domains
  • Strong interpersonal skills
  • The ability to communicate 
  • High levels of proficiency in 
managing customer expectations

Cognizant uses a multifaceted approach to develop this kind of understanding, or empathy. “To meet this requirement, we use a combination of instruments: face-to-face meetings, audio-video conference calls, and e-mail. We continuously work with project teams and provide them with appropriate ongoing training,” says Vijayakumar. “Several of our soft skill development programs enable our associates to inculcate a can-do attitude to build empathy for customers; create exemplary teamwork to offer the best-in-class solutions to customers; and imbibe a spirit of ownership and responsibility and of treating customers with respect. In every project, especially in ‘agile’ project management, great emphasis is placed on the systematic development of a product, focusing on specific customer requirements.”

CareSource, a community-based nonprofit health plan based in Dayton, OH, also uses a structured program to nurture an empathetic workforce. The organization uses both classroom and computer-based forms of learning in this area. “We believe people can be taught interpersonal skills,” says Director of CareSource University Douglas M. Stover. “We offer several courses, to employees at all levels, to improve interpersonal skills when interacting with our members. We teach courses on emotional intelligence with an emphasis on social awareness and relationship management, and we also use ServiceMentor by Ulysses Learning for our call center staff to help them improve their empathy when interacting with our members and use interpersonal skills to uncover the root cause of the member’s request. With our Patient Navigator program, our employees in the Case Management department are taught how to use interpersonal skills when interacting with our members to help them better manage their medical conditions.”

At ExactTarget, “it’s our mission to serve and inspire marketers of all industries and organizational sizes by helping them better communicate with their customers,” says Susan Elsey, senior director, Global Talent Management 
and Organizational Development. “Making our clients look like heroes is one of our eight core values, and our employees’ ability to understand and anticipate our clients’ needs is paramount to reaching that goal.”

As such, says Scott Thomas, director, Global Product Enablement, ExactTarget shares with employees and managers both the quantitative and qualitative data measured in a quarterly Client Voice survey that can lead to product innovations and service direction to benefit the company’s clients. “Employees are rewarded and highlighted for making changes based on client feedback,” Thomas says.

The company also offers a formalized shadowing opportunity to all employees, allowing them to spend time with a customer support representative and listen to client calls, Elsey notes. “Through this experience, employees gain insight into our clients’ needs and how we can best serve them.”

In addition, ExactTarget’s Orange University offers classroom training and 300-plus e-learning professional development opportunities with specific learning solutions focused on developing interpersonal, listening, communication, negotiation, and customer service skills.

Art of Listening and Non-Verbal Cues

Often it isn’t what your customers are saying, but what they aren’t saying that makes a difference. And when they do speak, sometimes the clues to satisfying their needs are so subtle they can be missed. Copernicus Group IRB, an independent clinical research review board, believes you can train employees to be alert to these non-verbal and subtle signs. “Emotional or non-verbal cues are just as important as the verbal interactions occurring between staff and client. Even more personal communication via phone can create difficulties in recognizing missed signals, but the most likely cause behind these missed signals is lack of active listening. Because our employees are organized and assigned as a single point of contact for clients, they talk and work with the same clients, and, therefore, build relationships with their customers,” says Corporate Trainer Sydney Douglas. “This one-on-one communication is a clear benefit to us and to our clients as this single point of contact is better able to know, understand, and assist with their clients’ needs while providing the best customer service possible. In working so closely with their assigned clients, active listening allows them to more intuitively identify emotional or non-verbal cues whether over the phone or through e-mail correspondence.” Douglas says that meaningfully listening to another person takes practice for some employees. “Active listening is one of the skills we specifically train on as part of our customer service soft skills set, along with skills for asking effective questions, creating obligation between both parties, and following up on action items to provide a more complete interaction cycle with clients. All of these elements contribute to our employees being a part of the solution in any client request.”

Morrison Management Specialists, a food service provider to hospitals and retirement communities, also teaches employees to consider the “unexpressed needs” of customers. “Learning about customers’ needs is paramount. We discuss not only the expected and expressed needs of our customers, but also the unexpressed needs and how we can anticipate what services someone may want before they tell us. Every time we can meet an unexpressed need, we have gone above and beyond with service,” says Director of Learning Tony Leggio. “During our daily meetings with associates, we stress the need to read the facial expressions of customers to ensure we are not disappointing them. Serving an elderly patient or guest is a perfect example. This group sometimes will accept something that may not be a preference for them. One of our key statements is ‘Does this sound good to you?’ or ‘What would you be eating if you were at home?’ When our associates take the time to read the customer, they can drive great satisfaction.”

Focus on Relationship-Building

CHG Healthcare Services trains employees to think of the big picture when working with customers. Rather than encouraging a fixation on the current deal, the company encourages employees to think about interactions in the context of a long-term relationship. “CHG believes building relationships is a skill. As with any other skill, it can be improved upon or lost depending on practice, nurture, and dedication,” says Training and Development Specialist Quin Harward. During the first weeks of newly hired employees, relationship-building fundamentals are taught, role-played, and evaluated. “Our interview process is very much about discovering if they will fit into our culture, which is based on relationships,” Harward explains. “If someone has wonderful experience, top-notch credentials, and no ability to build relationships, there is little chance of us moving forward. When we use our core value of Putting People First, we have found relationships are based on trust. When we foster this trust, all parties are safe to ask more questions, answer those questions honestly, and come to a mutual understanding of how everyone wins. When our focus shifts from the customer to the sale, we are less willing to spend the time to be sure we’re doing what’s right for all parties, we begin to rush through processes, and ultimately lose this and future business.”


  • Understanding customers’ unspoken needs begins by asking the right questions. Sales and customer service training should include practice 
asking good opening questions with customers 
and prospects.
  • Keep in mind that emotional intelligence is as important as technical skills to serving customers. Have employees practice with role-play exercises the ability to understand the perspective of the other person in a business meeting.
  • Listening exercises in which one employee tells a story or explains a service issue to another is a good way to assess listening skills. Train employees not just to listen, but to be alert to non-verbal cues that the customer isn’t happy.
  • Train employees to check with customers to ensure they are in agreement. Sometimes it may seem like a business associate has agreed, but, in fact, he or she just didn’t know how to respond. Employees should be taught to summarize customer needs and the agreed-on solution at the end of the interaction.
  • Encourage employees to think in terms of building long-term relationships rather than thinking of 
each interaction as a one-shot deal. That way, they will grow accustomed to thinking about each customer’s larger goals.
  • As part of your mission statement, commit employees to focusing on “people first,” or their customer’s needs ahead of their need to make a sale. Keeping the focus on the customer’s 
satisfaction often is the best way to organically generate additional business.
Lorri Freifeld
Lorri Freifeld is the editor/publisher of Training magazine. She writes on a number of topics, including talent management, training technology, and leadership development. She spearheads two awards programs: the Training APEX Awards and Emerging Training Leaders. A writer/editor for the last 30 years, she has held editing positions at a variety of publications and holds a Master’s degree in journalism from New York University.