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  • August 7, 2020
  • By Ian Jacobs, principal analyst, Forrester Research

As Agents Already Know, Emotional Work Is Real Work

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‘I would beg to disagree/ But begging disagrees with me’  —Fiona Apple (‘Under the Table’)

A COLLEAGUE OF MINE recently urged me to watch a newish Amazon Prime TV series called Upload. He told me I’d love it because “it’s about a customer service representative.” Unlike me, my colleague apparently has no separation between his work life and his downtime. I was expecting something like the misbegotten NBC series Outsourced, about an Indian call center, which aired about 10 years ago. If you ever want to subject yourself to a litany of stereotypes—about both Indians and Americans—and serious misunderstandings of call center processes, check out Outsourced. Or don’t and live longer.

Still, I tuned in to Upload; it seemed like the collegial thing to do. And, you know, pandemic boredom! It was not the show I expected—more ham-fisted critiques of modern capitalism and social media culture than ham-fisted stereotypes. Topics ranging from micropayments to wealth inequality to virtual reality to cutthroat corporations come in for gentle, often very gentle, spoofing.

I’m not here to provide a review of the show; this isn’t The Hollywood Reporter. What grabbed me in Upload was, as my colleague predicted, the treatment of the character of the contact center agent of the future. She is known alternately as Angel or Nora. That could possibly be another dig at offshore agents masking their real identities behind innocuous pseudonyms. Whatever the case, her job goes beyond basic tech support to providing real empathy.

That’s the element of the show that is sticking with me. The show’s writers recognize that there is a major emotional component to customer service. Another main character even comments on this at one point, saying, “Emotional work is real work.”

Why did this focus on emotion strike me so? I’ve written about the role of emotion in customer service in this column many times; clearly, I’m sensitized to the issue. But more than that, the show appreciates the toll that doing “emotional work” takes on customer service personnel. Compassion fatigue is a real issue in contact centers. Prolonged emotional stress from dealing with customers makes agents numb and unable to pick up on even simple social signals. That’s one reason customers complain that agents seem uncaring or apathetic. Acknowledging this condition puts the show ahead of where many companies were pre-pandemic.

COVID-19 has shaken up companies’ perceptions of their own agents. Many organizations have told me that they’ve seen their average handle times increase, at least partially because customers, bored at home and starved for human contact, just want to chat. In other words, the work that agents do now has been transformed, and now more than ever it is truly about emotions and empathy. This has placed new stresses on agents, and companies have started to not just accept that these anxieties are real but constructively deal with them. For example, one Forrester client went so far as to rapidly add a free dedicated stress helpline for agents. The firm found that while usage was not stratospheric, the agents who did avail themselves of the help rated it very highly in giving them the sense of equilibrium required to power on in the job.

So while you’re looking at ways to serve the emotional needs of customers beset by financial woes or health concerns or just heightened angst, spare some mental energy for helping keep your own staff grounded.  

Ian Jacobs is a principal analyst at Forrester Research.

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