Are We on the Same Wavelength?

December 1, 2010

By Christopher P. Blocker, PhD

Quick Overview

A two-sided study of emotional intelligence with agents and clients reveals that only 26% of the pairs operate on the same "emotional wavelength" and 46% of agent-client encounters show weak emotional communication. Our research results unpack what this means for agents as they seek to connect with their clients and create superior value for them.


Communicating effectively with clients on an emotional level is critical for successful selling. In fact, who could deny that emotions play a fundamental role in most (if not all) home real estate sales? Even with clients who "play their cards close to the vest," it is safe to say that their emotions still undergird what they desire and the goals they are striving after (Lazarus 1991). For the savvy real estate agent, this is old news. Training seminars and popular sales books frequently cite the vital role of emotions and urge salespeople to enhance their emotional capabilities to deal with clients (e.g., Thull 2010). What does remain a mystery, however, is just how the unspoken flow of emotions unfolds within daily agent-client encounters and affects the relationship--not to mention the potential sale.

Two-Sided Study on Emotional Intelligence in Real Estate Interactions

This article reports on a recent study conducted by a team of researchers with real estate agents and their clients to reveal some striking realities about the quality of emotional communication in agent-client encounters. Specifically, we examined emotional intelligence ("EI" for short) for agents and clients, a process which captures a person's capabilities to perceive, understand, and manage human emotions. Recent studies show that salespeople with low levels of EI not only are limited in their abilities to use strategies like customer-oriented selling, but research shows low EI can have a negative impact on sales performance (Kidwell et al. 2007) (note: see Blocker 2009, KCRR for an extended explanation of emotional intelligence and its applicability in real estate sales contexts). The "big" questions and goals of the study. We wanted to understand the impact of the harmony (or noisy clamor!) of emotional communication that occurs when agents and clients who possess either very similar or different levels of EI interact together. We call this "emotional symmetry" when both sides have similar levels of EI, or conversely "asymmetry" when the two parties are significantly different. This goal reflects the idea of being on the same or different "emotional wavelength." For instance, what does it look like when an emotionally-competent salesperson interacts with a client who has great difficulty recognizing or expressing his or her own emotions? What if the roles were reversed and the client has a significantly higher EI? In either scenario, we might say they are operating on a different emotional wavelength, and this disparity could have negative consequences for the "chemistry" in the relationship, first impressions, and the overall progression of the sale. One might also predict that having emotional symmetry leads to strong emotional communication and other feel-good outcomes. However, the point is we really do not know, since this is the first known study to examine these questions in this way. What we captured from agents and clients. To generate some reliable answers to our questions, we studied 130 agent-client pairs (260 individuals) who were involved in a home buying situation. These individuals allowed us to test their emotional intelligence (EI) using an advanced psychological measure of EI that drastically minimizes self-bias by asking informants to respond to visual questions based on facial recognition of emotions and comprehension-based emotional problem-solving (Kidwell et al. 2008a, 2008b). Then, using an index of EI, we were able to distinguish groups of both agents and clients that held low, moderate, and high levels of emotional intelligence and examine the pairs accordingly. Agents and clients also reported on the level of rapport (a measure of the relationship quality) they felt in the interaction. Clients reported on their perceptions of the agent's knowledge as well as the overall value they received (ex: "I would continue to do business with this agent, even if his/her commission percentage were increased somewhat"), their overall satisfaction (ex. very satisfied versus very dissatisfied), and overall loyalty (ex. "If my agent moved to a new real estate firm, I would likely shift to this agent's new firm").i

What Did We Find?

In short, we found that being on the same emotional wavelength with a client is an important factor to creating value and fostering positive relationships-and when you're not-the relationship can deteriorate, depending on which party possesses greater emotional intelligence. Quick statistics. We found that agents and clients demonstrated emotional intelligence symmetry (same emotional wavelength) in only 26% of the cases. Note: we excluded agent-client pairs who both possessed very low levels of EI. One would not expect pairs of individuals who both possess low emotional intelligence to communicate well on an emotional level-and our results showed negative or insignificant effects in these cases. So, some moderate level of EI is required for positive emotional communication to occur. Other statistics include:

  • Agents possessed significantly higher EI than their clients in 28% of the cases
  • Clients possessed significantly higher EI than their agents in 32% of the cases
  • Poor communication (low EI for agents and clients) was evident in 14% of the cases
  • Average levels of EI across the entire sample of agents and clients was very similar, i.e., agent EI ranged from 67-128 and the average was 100, and client EI ranged from 73-144 and the average was 99.

Are We on the Same Wavelength?

Key findings. When agents and their clients operate on the same emotional wavelength - they both report significantly higher levels of rapport with the other person; but the reverse is also true, asymmetrical pairs report significantly negative perceptions of rapport. Additionally, we found that EI symmetry positively affects a number of important client evaluations as demonstrated by the direct linkages we found to the right. We compared EI symmetry and EI asymmetry on agent- and client-perceived rapport and found that perceptions of rapport across clients and agents were congruent. We then looked at how EI symmetry or asymmetry impacted other elements of the relationship. As shown below, when symmetric EI exists, an agent's empathy and their use of emotional appeals to inspire clients demonstrate strong effects on the overall value that a client perceives; however, when asymmetric EI is present, empathy has no effect on value and emotional appeals have a strongly negative effect on the client's overall perceived value. This is important to note - because a recent study with real estate agents shows that emotional/inspirational appeals are one of the top three methods that agents use to influence their clients (Blocker 2008).

Perceived Value Drivers (Clients) Impact on Value: Symmetric EI Impact on Value: Asymmetric EI
Agent Empathy -> Value Strong positive impact No effect
Emotional Appeals -> Value Strong positive impact Strong negative impact

We took the analysis further by unpacking cases of EI asymmetry. Specifically, we wanted to know is asymmetry bad in all cases? Said another way, does it make a difference whose emotional intelligence (the agent's or the client's) is higher? The results were clear and offered a more positive outlook than only 26% of the pairs being able to communicate well on an emotional level. Specifically, clients who possessed stronger emotional capabilities than their agents held increasingly negative evaluations for the rapport as well as the degree of loyalty they held for that agent. However, when agents held comparatively higher emotional intelligence-clients felt significant rapport and loyalty toward that agent. Translation: helping clients understand, reason, and manage their emotions is a critical component of the value an agent can provide, thus, asymmetry can be "positive asymmetry" when an agent possesses higher degrees of EI and uses this competence to serve the client's emotional needs. This does not mean that agents need college degrees in life counseling. Rather, clients want agents to be emotionally engaged especially when it comes to understanding and reasoning through the emotions involved in a home buying situation. Moreover, they want agents to use their EI to help them process the stressful situations that arise in buying a home. Overall, we can summarize the findings in the following table that shows the regions of strong EI symmetry, positive EI asymmetry, negative EI asymmetry, and cases of very poor emotional communication on both sides. Each cell shows the combination of emotional intelligence and the percentage of agent-client pairs in our study that belong in each box. Emotional Intelligence

Note: percentages denote the % of agent-client pairs in our study that fell in each cell. Green cells (54%) reflect strong emotional communication due to EI symmetry or positive EI asymmetry. Red cells (46%) reflect weak emotional communication due to negative EI asymmetry or very poor emotional communication for both parties.

Action-Oriented Implications for Agents

Recognizing the boundaries of any research study, how should these results help real estate agents better understand the nuances of communicating emotionally with clients in ways that can enhance their client relationships and selling performance? For starters, recognize that if you currently have difficulty (even some of the time) communicating with clients on an emotional level--including recognizing, understanding, or helping to manage their complex emotions--you would be wise to invest in training to enhance your emotional competencies (see Blocker 2009, KCRR for various books, websites, and training resources agents can tap into to enhance their EI). Otherwise, you may be putting yourself at an immediate deficit for developing rapport, satisfaction, value, and loyalty with your clients. Next, recognize that your emotional competence is a resource for clients that assists them in navigating the uncertain waters of home buying. Clients may not tell you that your EI is valued, but the positive effects of Agent EI upon rapport, value, satisfaction, and loyalty show that it clearly creates value in the exchange process. Your level of emotional intelligence may also reveal positive spillover effects for the degree to which clients believe you are an expert, as demonstrated by the positive link we found between EI symmetry and perceptions of agent knowledge. Within each client interaction, the findings here suggest that agents should be silently asking themselves, how is the flow of emotions going in our conversation? Are we on the same emotional wavelength? Do your best not to presume that you understand how the client is feeling, since many people can be quite adept at "impression management," that is, putting on a "good face," even while feeling different emotions. If you need an additional reminder, results from this study showed that almost half (46%) of the agent-client pairs we analyzed were off-track emotionally and key perceptions of those relationships suffered as a result. If you sense that, for whatever reason, you and the client are not connecting emotionally or that the client may be more skilled in emotional reasoning than you are (32% of the cases we analyzed), it may be time to ask yourself some hard questions, such as:

  • How hard will it be for me to satisfy this client?
  • How confident do I feel about my risk of losing the client to another agent?
  • How confident do I feel about my competitive advantage based on the circumstances surrounding the client's needs and my ability to offer customized services?
  • What other strategies can I set in motion to improve the emotional communication?

If the answer to any of these questions puts doubts in your mind, it may be time to bring in a seasoned partner who may have better chances with this client or, in extreme cases, consider investing more time in other clients. Additionally, if using emotional appeals to inspire clients are part of your sales toolkit - recognize that there is a time and place to adapt and use other methods. Specifically, when there is emotional asymmetry between you and the client, using these types of appeals may work against you. Instead, consider making greater use of information-based appeals and expert assurances. Finally, with clients that you do sense a strong emotional connection, realize that these might be some of your most loyal clients. Focus your efforts to boost word-of-mouth and generate new business through these clients knowing they will likely be greater advocates for you.

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References and Further Reading

Blocker, Christopher P. (2009), "The Emotionally Intelligent Salesperson," Keller Center Research Report, August 2009, Baylor University. Blocker, Christopher P. (2008), "Lead Conversion: Adaptation, Influence, and Customer Value," Keller Center Research Report, Fall 2008, Baylor University. Kidwell, Blair, McFarland, Richard, G., Avila, Ramon A. (2007), "Perceiving Emotion in the Buyer-Seller Interchange: The Moderated Impact on Performance," Journal of Personal Selling and Sales Management, (2) Spring, p. 119-132. Kidwell, Blair, Hardesty, David, M., and Childers, Terry L. (2008), "Consumer Emotional Intelligence: Conceptualization, Measurement, and the Prediction of Consumer Decision Making," Journal of Consumer Research, (35), June, p. 154-166. Kidwell, Blair, Hardesty, David, M., and Childers, Terry L. (2008), "Emotional Calibration Effects on Consumer Choice", Journal of Consumer Research, (35), p, 611-621. Lazarus, R.S. (1991). Emotion and Adaptation. New York: Oxford University Press. Thull, Jeff (2010). Mastering the Complex Sale: How to Compete and Win When the Stakes are High! John Wiley & Sons.

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About the Author

Chris Blocker, PhD, Assistant Professor of Marketing, Baylor University

Chris completed his PhD at the University of Tennessee in marketing. His research focuses on understanding the dynamics of customer value and its implications for important strategies like relationship management and segmentation. Prior to pursuing a PhD in marketing, Chris held various marketing/sales positions in the high-tech sector, including professional services consulting and global account management for AT&T and business marketing at Sprint. He has published research in journals such as the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, Industrial Marketing Management, Journal of Business Research, The European Journal of Marketing, The Journal of Business and Industrial Marketing, and in the proceedings of several international marketing organizations.

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Results from the study were analyzing using structural equations modeling (SEM) and all measures showed robust validity and reliability. Further details about the study, its design, sample, measures, and analyses are available from the author.

Caveats to remember: the results contained in this study should be tentatively considered within the context of your own business, your personal selling experience, the types of clients you deal with, and your selling style. As with any study, there are likely specific characteristics of your selling style that are not captured here. This may affect the usefulness of applying these insights for a given agent.