Mirroring is good in customer service; disappearing isn’t

By Susan Lahey

Published March 26, 2018
Last updated December 28, 2020

Customer service is weird. For a certain number of hours a day, customer service agents are expected to let other people’s needs supersede their own. It’s a level of hospitality that, outside of the workplace, might lead one to be labeled “codependent” or “a doormat.” But on the job, agents are getting paid to connect with the customer, to adjust to their emotional state or way of communicating, and even to mirror a customer’s tone, voice, and sometimes body language, so as to build rapport in a minute, or five.

Some of this connection will be innate. People automatically shift in response to those around them. 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 something called mirror neurons—neurons that cause us to involuntarily “mirror” other people, contributing to feelings of empathy. But scientists are beginning to look at the mirror neuron theory with a bit of a cocked eyebrow, as evidence suggests that mirror neurons can also fire in response to how we actually behave.

Still, something makes us respond to those around us. The response might be slight or, in the case of anxious or self-critical people, it can be profound, causing us to take on the emotional burden for other people’s behavior. Instead of standing there like the Dalai Lama with a beatific smile on our faces while people come at us with all their own personal baggage, we can wind up carrying a lot of it.

Other connection attempts are more deliberate. Many sales reps and customer service agents are taught to shift their way of interacting to match a customer. For example, if a customer is talking fast and using their hands a lot, you might “mirror” that, more subtly. Maybe someone cocks their head or uses a specific word over and over, and so you try to create an instant rapport by doing the same. Of course, if you take it too far, you will appear to be mocking the customer—and that’s generally bad for business.

Multiply this mirroring effort with different people, all day long, and it’s no wonder that customer service agents end up with empathy exhaustion.

While research shows that mirroring is a powerful way to create connection, it’s important to mirror without losing one’s sense of self and to maintain a hold on our own emotions. So, how is that accomplished?

Be yourself

Don’t try too hard. 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.

But so that your identity doesn’t get sucked out or overly depleted by identifying with so many people all day, it’s good to remind yourself to be in your own skin from time-to-time.

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 day 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 demonstrate that you can be really good at what you do. Mirroring make interactions easier for the customer, but you’re still you, being the best you can be.

Mirror energy, not emotion

Customer service interactions that resemble working with that sloth at the DMV in Zootopia can be tough for both agents and customers. You think you’re about to embark on a one-minute interaction that will lead to results and next thing you know, the issue feels like it’s consuming your whole afternoon.

Mirroring someone’s pace and energy can pull you together, so the customer feels that you’re “with” them and ready to help solve the problem. By contrast, when your energy is very different from the customer, it can create more stress and dissonance.

But matching energy doesn’t mean matching emotion. When a customer comes at you with stress, take some deep breaths to stimulate your vagus nerve—that has roughly the same impact as meditation.

After all, none of the customer’s emotion is about you. It may be about your company and their frustration with the products you sell, or a process that went awry, but customers also carry emotions about their relationship with their boss, or spouse, or about money. Or about their personal levels of anxiety or depression, or an illness in the family, or a difficult kid. You can’t crawl in 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.

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 customer’s life in a really effective way, agents may just turn out to be that customer’s unexpected customer service hero.

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 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.