In Times of Crisis, Contact Center Agents Must Practice Mindfulness
COVID-19 is frightening for good reason. There is no vaccine, no known cure, and no medicines that have proven to minimize its impacts. We’ve dealt with epidemics before—including the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, which gave us a scare—but never in any of our lifetimes have we confronted a pandemic of this magnitude, where the primary mechanisms for mitigating its consequences are social distancing and self-quarantine. Companies large and small are fighting for their survival, and economies all over the world are retreating into recession as businesses close to reduce contagion.
There is a lot that isn’t known about COVID-19, but one thing we do know is that in times of national or personal crisis, people reach out to contact centers more frequently. Contact centers function as free psychological counseling centers, as customers often share their thoughts and concerns with agents. Enterprises need to come up with ways to keep their front-line employees healthy during these very stressful times. (To learn more about how to manage contact centers through the pandemic, visit here.)
AGENTS FUNCTION AS FIRST RESPONDERS
Companies need to be concerned about their employees’ physical health as well as their mental well-being, particularly if they, like contact center agents, are on the front lines. This is a time when many people feel overwhelmed, and as a result, contact center agents are going to hear from callers about their very real and often disturbing concerns, fears, and problems. A polite and helpful voice, which is a requirement for any agent, can sound like an invitation for the caller to vent. Multiply this across days or weeks of calls and it can result in a form of secondary trauma (which occurs when people are exposed, through conversations and media reports, to others’ traumatic experiences).
People are most vulnerable to secondary trauma when circumstances are universally challenging, as is the case with this worldwide pandemic, and each person is doing their best to cope with their own stress. Hearing other people’s concerns and problems can become too much when added to their own. Experience has shown that there is no way to prevent this from happening in contact centers, and agents need tools and practices to keep them healthy through these trying times; agents can benefit from the same techniques used by psychotherapists, healthcare workers, and first responders, who manage secondary trauma on a regular basis.
MINDFULNESS IS MORE THAN A BUZZWORD
The most important technique is mindfulness, which is the ability to consciously maintain one’s focus of attention. Mindfulness for contact center agents means focusing on what they can do for the caller (or writer) in any given interaction, not taking on a role that they cannot fulfill. When a caller veers off into statements of personal problems, agents must first mindfully remind themselves of their goal, which is to resolve a business problem. This allows agents to bring conversations back to the real purpose of the call. Some agents may feel that this is impolite, insensitive, or rude, but when done properly and mindfully, it is the kindest, most effective thing to do. The kindness can be emphasized by first validating the caller—letting the customer know that you understand. After allowing customers to speak—as there is often no way to immediately stop them—validation can be as simple as stating, “That sounds awful. I wish I could help you with that, but I can help you with this.” Rather than opening up a Pandora’s box of emotions that is difficult and time-consuming to contain, it can actually succeed in relaxing the caller through a simple statement of understanding, which allows a return to the original reason for the call.
These are trying times, and the situation is expected to get worse before it gets better. The most important thing an enterprise can do for its employees is to let them know that you are there for them. If companies help agents stay healthy by allowing them to work from home, and coach them to use mindfulness techniques to reduce stress, these essential staff members will be able to keep being there to help customers.
Abby Sarrett-Cooper, MA, LPC (firstname.lastname@example.org), is a Montclair, NJ-based licensed professional counselor, and Donna Fluss (email@example.com) is president of DMG Consulting, a provider of contact center and back-office market research and consulting.