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Let’s talk about reducing contact center agent stress

Jean-Marc Robillard | Jan 28, 2017 272 views No Comments

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On January 25th, Bell sponsored a very successful “Let’s Talk” day again this year, and it reminded me of the upcoming Mental Health Week in Canada, which runs from May 1st-7th 2017.

contact center agent mental health at work

For anyone who has worked in customer service, or in a contact center in general, mental stress is all too common. Case in point, in December of 2016, a leading French-language Montreal newspaper ran a shocking article about the abusive language used by customers over the phone, as well as the draconian policies sometimes enforced by management related to how far a customer can go before you are allowed to disconnect (LaPresse storybut be warned that some of the language being quoted by way of example is not suitable for work or sensitive audiences).

There will always be people that behave, shall we say, in ways that are on the fringe of civility, negatively affecting an agent’s disposition. If this happens on a daily basis, it can have a lasting effect.

However, a contact center, as an organization, can always make adjustments to their policies and procedures, and managers possess the ability to directly influence the general mood and level of engagement within their department.

The alternative, complacency, can produce results akin to some of the online feedback I have come across in researching the call center industry. Take a look at this conversation thread from Reddit for some unfiltered, honest feedback from current and past call center employees.

Here are 4 potential solutions, that involve approaches I have learned about through my collaborations and interviews with contact center industry leaders and influencers across the Globe.

#1: Make work engaging
Since contact center roles are mostly procedural and process-driven, with clearly-defined objectives, why not gamify the work? Instead of agents being focused on the potential difficulty of their upcoming customer interactions, use the ultimate objectives within their work day as targets to hit.

Think of how you might go about learning a new language: the process is quantifiable, modular, and involves repetition. And yet, the most successful language courses in the world (Rosetta Stone and Duolingo) leverage game mechanics and achievable micro-goals to get users to the next level, generating a huge customer base and extremely engaged learners. In other words, they transform an otherwise frustrating endeavor into a fun, yet challenging, accomplishment.

#2: Prioritize employees over customers
Blasphemy, you may think. After all, doesn’t the Golden Rule of customer service go something like “The customer is always right”? Actually, you can create both loyal employees and customers, if you start with the employees’ well-being.
Not only is a positive attitude contagious, but when the stakes involve recognition for a job well-done (see solution #1), obstacles such as rude customers and difficult problems are approached with a lot more enthusiasm.
The takeaway here is, remember to protect your employees from burnout, as opposed to, well, burning them out. Nothing undermines employee loyalty more than a manager that always seems to take the customer’s side.
And remember that protecting your employees does not translate to adopting a confrontational position with customers – there are subtle and effective ways to manage potential customer escalations. Here are some resources from Skillsoft.

#3: Involve agents in your strategy
Your staff are a prized corporate resource, so find ways to ask people how they think your contact center can become a more positive work environment. Involve them in developing ideas and in monitoring the effectiveness of any new initiative. Brainstorm, whiteboard once a week, send out updates over group emails or messaging. Keep the communication flowing, no matter the level of enthusiasm you encounter – it can start off strong then ebb as they expect you to stop following up eventually, as most of their past managers have done, or it can start off with no externally detectable excitement, but as your team begins increasing their trust in you and the process, and realize you are being consistent, they will warm up in ways you could not imagine. The payoff in loyalty is priceless.

#4: Leverage the tools you already have
Are you guilty of having subscribed to a robust contact center reporting tool, but rarely, if ever, generate the reports that were touted as essential when you signed the initial agreement? That’s OK, lots of managers can nod in agreement to that statement.
Use the tools that you have, or research new ones; I try to look for subscription-based software for my current role, and give it a try for a month or so. If it adds value, it becomes a part of my technology stack, especially if it can integrate into the broader technology infrastructure leveraged by my team, such as apps you can add on to a CRM or ERP.

That whiteboarding session I mentioned above? You can probably find something more efficient in an app, and share ideas across your team, if you find it logistically challenging to get everyone into a meeting room once a week. Also, leverage your WFM (workforce management) application to see if anyone seems to be lagging compared to their average or usual performance levels. Run some reports, and based on the data, and your intuition, you may be able to avoid a case of burnout by having a one-on-one with an agent, and perhaps making adjustments to their schedule to maximize their most productive shift segments.

Let’s all remember that everyone is facing challenges in life, and some periods can be particularly difficult to manage. Empathy is not just a strong requirement for agents vis-à-vis their customers, it is an absolute necessity for the consummate contact center manager.

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