How to Hire for Emotional Intelligence: The 51% Solution

Authored by Kayla Brehm

Published on August 24, 2015

We all know about IQ, arguably the most popular metric of intelligence measurement. But what about EQ? The concept of Emotional Intelligence was first introduced in the early 1990’s, but it was only recently brought to my attention in Danny Meyer’s Setting the Table.

Of course, I’ve heard of the restaurateur many times before. From frequent visits to the Union Square Cafe to hearing stories about how Meyer was late to his own award ceremony because he wanted to meet the new team at one of his Shake Shack locations – he makes an impression.

So do his restaurants. Consistently championed for their outstanding customer service, each location makes you feel welcome and at home. Meyer’s memoir outlines the method to his madness (and success). It’s simple. EQ.

The 51%

Hospitality is universal. From your local “mom and pop” diner to the newest SaaS startup, great customers service is a must. But how do you hire for it? How do you make sure that each employee will consistently “wow”?  What qualities do you look for?

“It is in my firm conviction that an executive or business owner should pack a team with 51 percenters, because training them in the technical aspects will then come far more easily. Hiring 51 percenters today will save training time and dollars tomorrow.” (Setting the Table, 142)

Meyer calls these candidates the 51%. When examining each applicant, technical skills (aptitude) only account for 49% of their excellence factor. The remaining 51% should be a make up of their emotional and hospitality skills (attitude). The result of this combination: amazing customer service.

So how do you find your 51%-ers? What do you look for?


1. Optimism

Not all customers will be happy customers, so you want a team of people who will work with each customer to come to a resolution.

“I want the kind of people on my team who naturally radiate warmth, friendliness, happiness, and kindness…I want to employ people I’d otherwise choose to spend time with outside of work. Many people spend a large percentage of their waking hours at work. From a selfish standpoint alone, if that’s your choice, it pays to surround yourself with compelling human beings from whom you can learn, and with whom you can be challenged to grow.” (Setting the Table, 144)

An optimistic person will recognize and own up to their previous failures, but not dwell on them. Customer service representatives should be able to recognize their own faults and see bad tickets or interactions as learning experience.

2. Intelligence

Intelligence is more than a test score. Hire team members who are naturally curious and eager to learn. Know that when they master one skill they won’t stop there.

For example: If a customer reports that their password reset isn’t working, it’s the customer service rep’s job to help them through that issue. But great agents will go a step further and maybe report that it wasn’t working to their boss or engineering. Maybe they’ll notice that this is a common issue, and document how to properly respond.

3. Work Ethic

Reps with a strong work ethic will not be satisfied until the customer is happy. Will they go above and beyond? If a tricky ticket was opened a few minutes before they leave for the day, will they stay late to see it through, or transfer it to someone else?

4. Empathy

The ability to understand the customer is a huge part of any customer service rep’s job. Warby Parker is a company that does this really well. Social media is full of stories of people telling their tales of broken or stolen sunglasses, only to have Warby team members reach out and offer a free replacement. They get it. Losing or breaking a valuable item is a huge bummer.

Source (Forbes)

Customer Service folks should possess the capability of putting themselves in the customers shoes. What would be the ideal solution if you were the customer?
5. Self-awareness and integrity

A great customer service rep should understand how they, and the customers tick. What can they do to improve? How can they make the customer’s day?

Bonobos gives their customer service Ninjas the freedom to refund or replace items as they see fit. Why? They want representatives to feel empowered to make smart choices for the company and the customer.


How to Hire for EQ

“We urge those who trail to ask themselves, Is this really the kind of place I’m going to want to spend one-third of my time? Is this place going to challenge me and make me feel fulfilled?” (Setting the Table, 147)



The interviewing process goes both ways. Make sure the candidate is a fit for your company, and your company is a fit for the candidate.

In his restaurants, Meyer puts new hires to the test during a “trailing” period. Much like shadowing, new hires follow more senior staff members in different job areas throughout the day and don’t move on to a new section unless the staff member in charge gives the okay.

Companies can easily adopt this process by including a project during the interviewing process. Either onsite or as a take-home, projects give you an insight into how the candidate will work with your team. Assign sample customer service tickets and walk through their responses. Why did they respond the way they did?


Culture Fit

One of the most important questions we ask during every interview is “Why”. It’s a simple question, but it tells us if the candidate really thought about why they want to work for us. What sets us apart from other companies?

Other popular interview questions that assess emotional intelligence:

When accessing new employees, Zappos has a unique approach to weeding out potential bad hires. After new employee orientation, they offer everyone a buyout worth one month of their salary if they don’t think they’re a fit. Why? They want to make sure you’re there for the right reasons.

Hiring for emotional intelligence is important. It can give you a good insight into the employee’s potential success within your company. Do they strive to do more? Do they care about the customer? If done right, you already know the answer.

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