06. [Article] The Head and the Heart: Understanding Customers’ Transactional and Emotional Needs

Identifying Customers’ Real Needs

All your years in the service industry might have led you to one inalienable truth. What a customer wants and what he needs are often two different things.

And since customers’ real needs may not always be stated demands, there is a very real need to look beyond the seemingly obvious, in the interest of customer centricity and delight. Merely meeting stated demands or requests for customers, ironically, can diminish customer experience, since, in effect, customers might be walking away with an unresolved need.

What is the Meaning of the Term ‘Real Need’?

A customer’s real need is the outcome that they are hoping for, which they believe will be met by the requirement (product or service) that they have asked for. But they aren’t always attuned to what they really need.  Additionally, sometimes it is difficult for customers to articulate what it is they want or need, especially if it is not something they often think about.

What is required is that you draw this latent, unstated need out of customers.

As customer service experts point out, as a first step, it helps to look at customers’ ‘real needs’ in terms of emotional needs and transactional needs.

Since delight is an emotion, ensuring customer delight requires identifying the emotional need in even the most ordinary interaction. Most service providers assume that meeting a customer’s transactional need automatically takes care of their emotional need. They assume wrong! It must be remembered, that customers, though well-informed, are not always the experts. There’s a difference. And that’s where you come in. Having information and knowing how to apply that information to beneficial ends is exactly why we are best placed to identify apt solutions needed to meet the customer’s real need – emotional and transactional. And that requires fairly evolved knowledge of one’s job, as well, as evolved behavioural skills.

As a next step, it might help to further classify customer interactions, for the sake of structure.

Classification of Customer Interactions

There are two possible scenarios when it comes to customer –service provider interactions:

1) Reactive setting: When a customer approaches the service provider to:
a. Build or create a solution
b. Fix something

2) Proactive setting: When looking to build or improve upon status quo before the customer asks for intervention.

Let’s look at each of these settings, and explore tools to identify customer’s emotional and transactional needs in each setting.

How to Identify the Customer’s Real Need in Each Interaction Type

Let us explore how we can identify a customer’s real need in each of the interaction types that we have noted above/ earlier.

I. Reactive setting: When a customer approaches the service provider to build or create a solution

As the heading points out, this is a situation where the customer is seeking a product or service designed for themselves by professionals. Let’s look at tools to uncover the customer’s real need in this case.

I.a. Identifying the customer’s transactional needs

Identifying transactional needs involves getting to the roots of what the customer hopes to impact with the service or product they are asking for. It’s best if there’s a metric that the customer has in mind that they need impacted. This offers the added bonus of tracking the effectiveness of the solution too. Now the customer may or may not have thought about the metric(s) in question when asking for a design or solution. That’s where consultative questioning skills – a.k.a ‘due diligence’ in corporate terms – comes in.

Using consultative questions to unearth the ‘real’ transactional need

Here are some questions to start you off. Please note, this is by no means an exhaustive list:

Question 1: (To be posed to self) Is this a straightforward need or do I need to probe further?
If you identified that the need expressed is not straightforward and further probing is required, then move to Question 2.Question 2: Is this a need that you have proactively identified to improve business outcomes or experiences, or is this a reactive need to some sub-par outcomes or experiences?Question 3: What is the end benefit, business outcome or business metric that you are seeking to achieve through the service requested for?Question 4: What are the outcomes that you are currently deriving? OR What are your current metrics (relative to the discussion at hand)?Question 5: How are you meeting the desired outcomes, currently?Question 6: How do you see the request you have made helping you achieve the outcome or metric that you are targeting?Note: Paraphrasing at the end of a round of questions might help immensely. Easily overlooked, it can be critical to check whether what they want and what they need are the same things and whether everyone is on the same page.

The consultative questions mentioned above will provide you with information on the customer’s latent needs.
Post your conversation with the customer, here are a few questions for you to ponder upon to better identify the customer’s needsQuestion 7: What are the best practices in meeting the outcome the customer is seeking? Is the customer present to these ‘best practices’?Question 8: Is what the customer asking for the most appropriate solution? If no, what could be a better solution?Question 9: What else might the customer require along with this ‘solution’? (Things we can provide, of course)Question 10: What issues could come up during/ post this interaction that we might need to be cognizant of?

Sometimes, even the most incisive consultative questions might not give the service provider a true sense of what the customer really needs. In such cases, it only makes sense go deeper – a ‘deep dive’ in corporate speak. Enter ethnographic interviews.

Using ethnographic interview questions for a deeper understanding of the customer’s needs

What is Ethnography?

Ethnographic interviewing is a type of qualitative research that combines immersive observation and directed one-on-one interviews. The interviewer goes to the user and interviews them at the place where the user uses the product and/or does the work under study. The idea is to interview users in their natural setting, while they are performing their tasks, asking them questions about what they are doing and why (when necessary) along the way. Observing users as they perform activities and questioning them in their environments can bring important details of the behaviours to light.

A lot of people already do this in some form or the other, without realizing the full extent of the tool. A time-and-motion study, for instance, is a good example of how ethnocentric studies work.

Consider, for instance, a third-party MNC contractor that landed a work order to replace legacy systems with an upgraded workflow system. Given the significant impact of the task, there was little room for error. The first course of action, of course, was to get all the consultative questions out of the way. That done, it was still essential to how users of the legacy system were interacting with it, to get a real sense of what their pain points were and what could be perceived as an upgrade as far a new system was concerned. So the tech teams responsible for constructing the mainframe sat with end users of the legacy systems for two weeks straight. The data was analysed for trends, and it became clear that in addition to users finding legacy systems incredibly slow, the tech analysts realized that users also had to pull work from the servers. The legacy system did not have the capacity to auto-allocate work to users who were available. And it was observed that users had to constantly switch between PC calculators, Wordpad and the legacy workflow system because the legacy system didn’t allow for note-making or calculations. The interesting thing is that operations were so used to using the legacy systems as they were, that nobody thought to highlight it as a pain point, during the consultative question session. It was all part of the territory for them. At the end of it all, along with a host of intuitive new features, note pads and calculators were added into the new workflow system. And an interesting fringe benefit was that there was a marginal reduction in work errors, formally tracked as human errors, caused by toggling, copying and pasting.

In the interest of time, we haven’t covered how to conduct ethnographic interviews here.

‘In the interest of time, we haven’t covered how to conduct ethnographic interviews here. For your reference though, we have included links to an article and a Tedx video that you will find immensely helpful on the topic.

I.b. Identifying the customer’s emotional needs

It is important to understand the emotional content of a customer’s speech. Easier said than done because customers aren’t always articulate about how they feel. Sometimes they might not even be conscious of it. It falls upon you as experts to read between the lines and interpret non-verbal cues like body language and change in voice tone and pitch. And that requires keen attentiveness. And it pays because the more information you glean about your customer’s emotional need the more you can help the customer and yourself.
A good question to consider, for instance, is what emotional value does the customer attach to the product or service they need designed for them? What makes the service or product important to their life? How do they like to be seen as individuals to the world around them?
Another great skill that helps here is the ability to read body language. Cues like customer’s interrupting you repeatedly, asking you the same questions even though you believe you’ve answered them, smiling (or not!) on hearing your best suggestion, nodding (or not!) when you make a key point can be very telling of where they stand as far as emotions are concerned, on the service or product being discussed. The best in business look for these cues on a reflex.

Here are some more body language cues you could look for to identify customers’ emotional needs:

II. Reactive setting: Identifying Customer Needs When a Customer Approaches you to Fix Something that is Broken

In this scenario, as you can guess right off the bat, a very different set of emotions is at work as far as the customer is concerned. And as far as transactional needs are concerned, there might be far less time available for troubleshooting because whatever has happened has likely disrupted the customer’s way of life.

As before:

Identify transactional needs through consultative questions

We have discussed this in detail too. Here, however, given possible time challenges, it is extremely important to ask diagnostic questions to find out what is broken, how it’s impacting the customer and how it happened, in the interest of getting it right the first time

Here are some examples of consultative questions that can be used in this scenario. As before, this is not an exhaustive list.

  1. Is this the first time this has happened?
  2. If not, how did you manage (what quick fixes, troubleshooting has already been done)?
  3. Just so we understand all elements involved, does the product/service not work at all, or only in specific situations or only for certain users? If yes, probe further to identify specifics.
  4. Is there anything else you think contributed to the breakdown?
  5. What disruptions are you facing because of the malfunctioning product/service?
  6. What else do you think we need to know that will help expediting a solution to this issue?
Study verbals and nonverbals to identify the emotional need

We have discussed this in detail already. It is important to give voice to the customer’s emotion, acknowledge their right to feel that way and then act to address that need.

III.Proactive setting: Identifying Unstated Customer Needs (When looking to build or improve upon existing service set-ups before the customer asks for an intervention)

This scenario involves situations where you decide to improve a customer’s existing setup, with a view to upgrading systems, or nipping developing problems in the bud proactively, and not in response to a customer’s request. As before, there are specific steps you can follow to identify the customer’s need – in this case, unstated.

Consultative questions to identify the transactional need

We have discussed this in detail earlier. In this situation, the consultative questions that need to be posed are the same, in principle, as the ones that are listed in under the first reactive setting i.e. ‘when a customer approaches the service provider to build or create a solution’. Here, however, a service provider would do well to evaluate if the customer’s existing products or services address their emotional needs. And that’s where consultative questions come in. If there’s even a doubt that a gap exists between the customer’s emotional need and their transactional setup, it makes a strong case for bespoke solutions. Crafted best by experts-like you.

Ethnographic Interviews to identify the transactional need

Consultative questions in a proactive setting might only get you so far though. Remember the earlier case involving the legacy systems? Customers might not perceive something to be cause for concern because they have struck an equilibrium with the status quo after living with it for extended periods.


Consider a situation where a Business Excellence team took it upon themselves, with the CEO’s blessings, to identify the potential for the use of LEAN methodology and other tools to improve the productivity of a particular operational vertical. In this case, the operational vertical had no complaints with their processes, and this was apparent in the consultative question sessions too. However, Operations had no trouble with extending cooperation to the Business Excellence team when they asked to conduct ethnographic interviews.

The ethnographic study commenced in earnest. Business Excellence associates began to shadow the KPO associates in their work zone. And they were able to spot something very interesting: the team was exceptionally close knit, which was natural, given that all of them were together for a long time. What was interesting was that there were no new team members. When Business Excellence picked this up with the head of the KPO team over a conversation, the Head mentioned that since there was no attrition, there was no need for hiring. Plus, hiring someone qualified enough was not the easiest thing, given the narrow set of specialist skills required. There was a succession plan in place, but since the team members were happy where they were, and had no aspirations to move anywhere (they were asked!), no action was necessary, and the succession plan went on the back-burner.

Can you recognize the risk here? The KPO vertical could come to a complete standstill with just one untoward incident.

While Business Excellence highlighted this one observation and got the Head of the KPO vertical to consult with the Risk and Compliance team, along with HR. Nobody wanted to disturb the dynamics of the high-performing KPO team, but contingency planning was necessary. A non-intrusive cross-skilling plan was put in place, where suitably qualified individuals from other verticals in the organization were cross-skilled as a back-up. Everyone understood the need for this, and the KPO vertical was all the better for it.

While the KPO team hadn’t originally seen a strong business case for a LEAN project, the Business Excellence team had – using ethnographic studies – identified a glaring unstated need for, and were instrumental in engineering a cross-skilling SOP and detailed process mapping for the KPO team. Impressed?

Identify the emotional need by studying nonverbals

We have discussed this in detail already. It’s a little harder for the service provider in this instance because it’s important to identify what’s important to the customer as far as emotional resonance is concerned. What values does the customer hold in high esteem? What are their aspirations? What aspects of work ethics are important to them? Answers to these questions will help make business cases for the change you’re trying to drive so that you can get your customer’s buy-in.

In summary, identifying customers’ needs in a proactive setting requires a special approach, because these needs, whether emotional or transactional- are not pain points. Not yet anyway. Unearthing them might lead to unexpected discoveries, and through them, unique opportunities to delight customers in ways they never expected.

In Conclusion

Every customer interaction has emotional and transactional elements to it, nature of service (reactive or proactive) notwithstanding. But it does take special consideration on the part of professionals and service providers to see them for what they are worth, and skills to identify them when they surface during these interactions. It’s not the easiest thing for professionals to identify and manage their customers’ emotional and transactional needs on a reflex. Simply because customers themselves cannot always discern between what they want and what they need. They may be well-informed, but sometimes a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. It’s up to the experts then, to draw out their customers’ unstated needs, act on them and steer them to solutions that leave them completely satiated, both in manner and form. As for the solutioning bit, we’ll cover that in great detail in the next module ‘Suljhao’.