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Stressed and Distressed
Underappreciated. Overworked. Underpaid. Here's a shock: Stressed-out customer service agents provide lousy customer service. We've got ways to reduce the tension—and raise satisfaction—on both sides of the call.
For the rest of the February 2010 issue of CRM magazine please click here
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Stress can be a killer. 

Sure, it’ll raise your blood pressure—but did you ever realize it can lower your customer satisfaction scores? The tension your customer service representatives (CSRs) are living through every day can bleed into their interactions with customers—and that can be a recipe for disaster.

Though problem calls may represent only a minority of a center’s total interactions—DMG Consulting President Donna Fluss believes just five to 10 percent—the changing nature of the contact center, customer service, and business in general can add up, leading to stressed-out agents. “This job isn’t for the faint of heart,” says Fluss, who also spent time as a contact center agent and supervisor. “Customers are coming in more educated and savvy about products, and that’s the challenging part for agents.” The growing complexity of contact center products and systems is another contributing factor, she adds.

David Butler, executive director of the National Association of Call Centers (NACC), points to the dynamic nature of the contact center—new communication channels, more-stringent cost-cutting strategies, increased agent workloads—and says that none of it is conducive to on-the-job relief. “The industry is in quite a state of flux, and that is one of the stressors,” he says. “What someone was doing in the contact center two years ago, I suspect, doesn’t look quite the same as it does today.” 

Sometimes stress can be relieved with the metaphorical equivalent of a deep breath. Customers and contact center agents often fail to see eye-to-eye, but nowhere is this maxim more literal than at Vision Service Plan (VSP), a part of VSP Global, which provides eyecare coverage and related products to more than 55 million members. And yet Robert Burmeister, a CSR with the firm, says he reminds himself that every call shares one simple mission. 

“Our goal is to get them seeing clearly,” Burmeister says. “The ancillary material isn’t really relevant. It all goes back to the core problem of, ‘I’m having trouble seeing.’” Part of that “ancillary material,” he says, is having to deal with irate callers—but staying on mission means ensuring people are getting the service and hardware they need for proper vision. That thought alone, he says, helps him deal with the stress. 

Kim Rundle, consumer relations manager for Organic Valley, a cooperative of organic farmers that handles approximately 30,000 contacts per year over multiple channels, says it’s a matter of prioritizing, compartmentalizing, and staying on-task. “If something comes up, we address it, take care of it, and go right back to business,” she says matter-of-factly. [See “Food for Thought,”for a deeper look at how Organic Valley has applied CRM software from RightNow Technologies.]

Some agents, however—even high-quality ones—reach a breaking point, slam down their headsets, and walk away. Butler’s research finds the turnover rate has reached approximately 33 percent, while Dimension Data pegged agent attrition at 21.1 percent for 2009. (See the sidebar “Working Toward a Better Workplace?,”  for more agent-related statistics.) 

Butler says he’s finding a very real split among departing agents—half left their contact center jobs within 18 months of starting, while the other half stayed for between two and 20 years—and that individual personality is a key factor in whether stress will be a given agent’s undoing. “The agents that seem to have been the most successful walk a fine line [with regard to] the rigid rules of a particular call center,” he says. “If they can work their own personalities into the equation, among the rules of what they can and cannot do, that adaptability helps them succeed.”

UNDER THE HEADSET

Talk to a successful contact center agent or supervisor about stress-busting tips, and invariably the first thing you’ll hear is to not take anything personally. “It’s easier said than done, but it needs to be understood,” says Deborah Navarra, senior analyst at DMG and a former contact center agent herself. “Whoever’s yelling at them on the phone is yelling at the institution and the policy or procedure frustrating them, not the agent personally.”

Echosaisis Clark, a service delivery complaint and grievance subject matter expert at VSP, says it’s important to view the interaction as a challenge—not a problem. He says most of the stress he encounters comes when a caller has a predetermined—and inflexible—notion of what would make the perfect solution. 

“Someone can call in because she has VSP insurance and is upset because of some other type of service she received from the doctor’s office or the lack of quality for her glasses,” Clark says. “That person will usually call in with a set idea of exactly how she wants something resolved, and from her point of view, it’s the only way it can be [done]. Part of helping someone is realizing that person has been put in a situation that has made her feel like it might be safer to be combative rather than open.”

This is generally due to poor experiences a caller has had in the past, and Clark says it’s important to be human and do some self-examination: After all, he says, we’re all customers. “You have to realize that person didn’t just decide to act like this overnight; it’s been taking shape [her] whole life and the same goes for [me],” he says. “You have to find a way to make the conversation work and treat each other with respect.”

Clark’s also quick to point out that the stress of calls is a fact of life for the CSR. Trying to ignore the stress—or believing there’s something wrong with you if you’re stressed—only exacerbates the problem. “It’s perfectly OK and natural to be hurt or upset after stressful calls,” he says. “We’re not superhuman customer service robots who are totally perfect and have no feelings.” 

COUNTERACT AND INTERACT

Seeing a difficult call as a challenge rather than a problem—and not taking it personally—may be foundational, but what about practice? Navarra says while agents are on the phone listening to a screamer, they need to have a particular distancing strategy to identify the emotion as white noise and focus on the issue at hand—the specific problem the caller is facing. 

Navarra suggests allowing the caller to vent and get everything he wants to say—warranted or not—out of his system before taking action. She says that trying to jump in, mid-scream, usually complicates matters. “Let the customer exhaust [himself], get it out, and then focus the conversation on the situation,” she says, adding that sometimes an agent even raises his headset so others can hear the screaming. “Still listen, but do so with a sense of humor—that can be another distancing technique,” she says. “You’re not laughing at the person, but inject some comic relief into the situation.” 

John Ragsdale, vice president of research for the Technology Services Industry Association, is another veteran of the support-agent ranks. He recalls how his former managers kept an eye toward humor as they helped reps deal with stress: They gave each one a toy Magic Slate, which CSRs could write on and pull up a plastic sheet to erase. “When we had a rude caller, we would write just what we thought about [him] on that slate and hold it up for all of our coworkers to see,” he says. “Their smiles and laughter diffused the situation.”

Connie Smith, president of consultancy SpotOn Enterprises, recalls a program she instituted in a contact center called “It Could Be Worse,” to instill some humor into a situation and to also give agents perspective. “I had an agent on the phone hang up and walk by, bawling,” she says. “I went over to her and asked what was going on. She was upset because a man was abusive and swearing at her on the phone. I started to sing, ‘It could be much worse…. It could be your husband and you would have to go home to him.’ She started laughing through the tears.”

All jokes aside, Fluss says that once customers are done venting, agents should use a soft and quiet tone. Not from a point of weakness, but rather so the CSR can assure the customer that the situation has a resolution. 

VSP’s Clark agrees that there are situations that call for the soft-and-quiet approach, but he says some calls require a different tack. It’s important that agents be flexible with how they handle a caller in real time. Regardless of the tone, he says, the agent should always be in control, whether the customer on the other end of the line realizes it or not. “Everybody is different,” he says. “Some will need to get it all out, but others will need reassurance from me right away. Let the caller take the driver’s seat, but direct the wheel of where it’s going and have your foot on the accelerator.”

NO AGENT IS AN ISLAND

Fluss says it’s important that a CSR not pass the buck—or call—off to another agent or supervisor immediately. She does note, however, that some situations require another set of ears. An agent on the phone with an incorrigible customer must recognize that she’s not alone, and not without recourse. 

There are several valid reactions to these ultra-stressors. Navarra notes some agents are enabled with perpetual or on-demand recording capabilities, which means they can review the call later with colleagues and supervisors. 

“If agents know they’re being recorded, it almost forces them to contain themselves and present themselves professionally because someone will be listening to it,” she adds. “This way it can be funneled back to a supervisor, and acted upon in a positive way afterward. It’s like, ‘I’m going to do something about this because I have to face it on a daily basis, and action needs to be taken.’” 

When recording isn’t a viable option, agents and experts alike suggest that the CSR should signal for a supervisor—virtually or physically. Fluss remembers having agents raise their hands in the air and cross them like an “X” as a signal for a supervisor to come to their workspaces and stand behind them during the 

call. “In the past, a supervisor could come over and put their hands on the agent’s shoulder,” Fluss recalls. “You can’t do that now—physically touch the person—but we do suggest the ability for an agent to send a note or chat to the manager or supervisor to stand by them and be there for support.” 

VSP’s Burmeister says he gets a tremendous sense of relief from the knowledge that he’s not completely on his own. His particular team of CSRs, he says, has a supervisor empowered to “make us feel good” while on the phone. Burmeister says he also gets comfort knowing he can speak with other CSRs between or after calls if there’s acute stress, which is helpful—other agents commonly find themselves in similar situations. 

When things get extremely rough, Burmeister says he’s able to speak with any supervisor in the entire building. “They want us to succeed and do well,” he says of his managers and supervisors. “Knowing that there’s myriad people who care about you personally makes whatever stress you feel on the call not as significant because you can talk about it.”

POSTMORTEM 

Being able to interact, vent, and commiserate with a supervisor or with fellow agents is one of several strategies to compartmentalize calls and not let a single bad customer interaction ruin the entire shift. “You need to get the chance to unload so you don’t carry it into the next call,” Navarra says. “It’s just a domino effect because you already have a chip on your shoulder. If the next call goes poorly, the whole day is a bust.”

NACC’s Butler suggests another coping strategy: Agents should physically step away from the workspace and get distance from the stress of the calls, so they can come back with a fresh perspective. “You can’t internalize negative or ‘challenge’ calls,” he says. “If you’re logged on and you have a three-hour stretch, when you log off and have a 15-minute break, it’s important to be able to go to the break room, read, talk, and laugh as if the complaints never happened. Let it roll off of you so you can go sit back down and log in without any hesitation, fear, or reservations.”

Some companies, including VSP, have programs in place enabling CSRs to take part in daily exercise classes and scheduled walks so they can get a change in scenery. Burmeister says there are tools he has at his workstation that help him cope with stress when he can’t get away. He has a hand-crunch exerciser he squeezes, an exercise ball he sits on periodically, and hand weights so he can do curls at his desk. (See “Environmental Distress,” for other operational processes to consider.) 

SpotOn’s Smith suggests that even a proper diet can help alleviate stress. “Contact centers are famous for candy, popcorn, potato chips, coffee, and soda…comfort food and drink to make reps feel better, but it’s making [the situation] worse,” she says. “If they really load up on that, it makes them feel worse and more stressed out. They should be drinking a lot of water and eating healthy snacks like fruits and veggies—otherwise they’re having a lot of carbohydrates, which will make them more tired.”

KEEPING PERSPECTIVE

As the contact center continues to evolve, many believe the stress that contact center agents face daily will not improve appreciably. “People are people, and that hasn’t changed over time,” Fluss notes.

Even though there are new points of contact—including Web self-service, email, chat, and social media—Butler says that the way a center is run will not change. Service-level agreements and key performance indicators will always loom, whether an agent is verbally speaking to a customer or pounding out an email response.

Bearing this in mind, it’s important to keep perspective and be able to unplug mentally from the daily grind. “Go home and leave work at work,” Smith says. “So many agents take it home, complain, and then exacerbate the problems because they can’t let it go.”

VSP’s Clark works toward this aim both inside and outside the walls of his contact center. For the big picture, VSP is a member of Verint Systems’ Customer Advisory Council, which enables the company to have a voice with its vendor. Within VSP’s own center, Clark has instituted what he calls a “Get Off the Hook” bag, which has empowering statements to help agents feel better after combative calls and emotionally detach from the situation. Personally, he also spends time working at an outreach support-group program for survivors of rape and child abuse. “Working in that program helps me recognize that it’s so important to have respect for who [a] person is, and it helps to take that stress away,” he says. 

Agents will often remember the negative calls and forget about the people who never resorted to yelling or insults. At RouteSmart Technologies, a provider of route-optimization software and logistics professional services, Brad Cox, the director of client services, says he helped agents focus on the positive thanks to an idea from one of his best-performing CSRs: The “Call a Favorite Client” program enables agents who have just had a difficult customer interaction or bad shift to call a client they enjoy speaking with just to check in and have a laugh—it doesn’t even have to be work-related. This can not only reduce stress, Cox says, but also strengthen the relationship the company has with that customer.

At the end of the day, Smith urges agents to ask themselves one simple question to immediately restore the proper perspective: “You may be upset after a rough call, but take a step back and ask yourself, ‘Will this matter a year from now?’ Ten times out of 10, the answer is no,” she says. “If it isn’t going to matter, then just let it go. Don’t sweat the small stuff.” 

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