Customer service is hard. For a certain number of hours a day, customer service agents allow other people’s needs to supersede their own. It’s a level of hospitality that requires real stamina to put into constant practice. On the job, agents work to build customer rapport by adjusting to customers’ emotional state or way of communicating. This can include mirroring a customer’s tone, words, and sometimes body language.
Research shows that mirroring is a powerful way to create connection. It’s something people do naturally with each other. For example, if you’re talking to someone who is very stressed, your own cortisol levels are likely to rise because stress is contagious. This effect isn’t really understood. It was believed to be the result of mirror neurons—neurons that cause us to involuntarily “mirror” other people, contributing to feelings of empathy. But scientists are beginning to take another look at the mirror neuron theory, as evidence suggests that mirror neurons can also fire in response to how we actually behave.
How mirroring helps customer rapport
In building rapport, mirroring a customer’s tone, language, or volume level (within reason) can communicate that you’re on the same page with them. Merriam Webster defines rapport as “a friendly, harmonious relationship, especially a relationship characterized by agreement, mutual understanding, or empathy that makes communication possible or easy.”
Building rapport with strangers usually takes time. But within a customer service interaction, time is precious, and mirroring can build customer rapport in minutes.
For example, if a person is talking fast and using their hands a lot, you might “mirror” that, but more subtly. Maybe someone cocks their head or uses a specific word over and over again, so you try to create an instant rapport by doing the same. Of course, if you overdo it, you will appear to be mocking the customer. Subtlety is key.
Mirroring for customer rapport: best practices
Begin with active listening
Sales coach Tessa Stowe wrote in Customer Service Manager magazine: “If you are focusing on mirroring someone’s body language or style, then you are obviously not focusing on them. Instead, you’re keeping the focus on you, e.g. how you are sitting, how you are talking. It’s all about you and not them. The more you focus on you, the more the person you’re mirroring will feel it and subsequently, no rapport will be established.
If you are focusing on mirroring, your listening skills will also be impacted. Try mirroring someone’s body language while actively listening and you’ll see it’s impossible to do both at the same time. In fact, you’ll not be very effective at either.”
Stowe points out that people naturally mirror, especially with those they like. If you’re being your authentic self and really care about helping the customer, you will mirror them.
Customer service interactions that resemble working with that sloth at the DMV in Zootopia can be tough for both agents and customers. The customer thinks they’re about to embark on a one-minute interaction that will lead to results, and the next thing they know, the issue feels like it’s consuming the whole afternoon. Customer service agents who are chatty and hyper friendly can be a problem when the customer is in a hurry; on the other hand, if the agent is brusque and speedy, the customer may feel they’re a chore to be completed and moved past.
Mirroring someone’s pace and energy can create a shared experience, so the customer feels that you’re “with” them, that you’re both feeling the trust and you’re engaged in solving the problem. This is key to a positive customer experience. By contrast, when your energy is very different from the customer’s, it can create more stress and dissonance.
Don’t mirror emotion
Customers will come at you all day with emotions that have nothing to do with you, and mirroring can backfire and make you feel responsible for the customer’s emotional state, which means you can wind up carrying a lot of someone else’s personal baggage.
Agents are more useful to customers when they can mirror the customer’s energy and maintain a positive emotional state while solving the problem. And, by dealing with this momentary and tiny part of a person’s life in a really effective way, agents may just turn out to be that customer’s unexpected customer service hero.
Try to shift a negative experience
Remember, customers may mirror you, too. You may help them calm down if they’re agitated. When a customer comes at you with stress, take some deep breaths to stimulate your vagus nerve—this has roughly the same impact as meditation. After all, it’s more than likely that none of the customer’s emotions are about you. It may be about your company and their frustration with the products you sell or about a process that went awry, but customers also carry emotions about a lot of other things: their relationship with their boss, partner, kids, or money; their personal levels of anxiety or depression; or an illness in the family. You can’t crawl into their lives or heads to solve any of that. And you can’t help them, or the next customer in line, if you’re sucked down a dark hole of emotion or self-doubt.
Pay attention to how mirroring is affecting you
Mirroring is a way that we naturally connect to one another. But unless we learn to manage it, we’re too porous and too easily influenced by others. We feel overwhelmed. We burn out. We suffer that malady of customer service agents everywhere: empathy exhaustion. Building strong customer relationships is important but so is meeting your own needs.
Customer service is about solving people’s problems, but you chose the job for your own reasons: Maybe you get a sense of satisfaction from making people’s days better. Maybe you think solving problems is fun. You are there for customers, but also to build your skills and experience, to work toward personal goals, and to demonstrate that you can be really good at what you do. We have to remember that while our ability to connect is a huge skill, our ability to bring our whole self into the equation is really important, too. Mirroring makes interactions easier for the customer, but you’re still you, being the best you can be.