For those in Europe seeking solace from a soggy summer and a break from the baffling Brexit brouhaha there are few places that can compare with southern Ontario’s cottage country where I spent a very pleasant break this past summer. Stunningly hot, consistently sunny weather, golden sands and shimmering blue lakes bring millions of regular “cottagers” and visitors to Ontario’s lakes every summer. But the restorative powers of a real summer after the UK’s occasional one day “heat wave” of 25°C aren’t just dependent on visual beauty and physical stimulation. There is an auditory component – “the sounds of summer”- that contributes even more to the experience. Many are the natural sounds of wildlife, wind in the trees, waves lapping onto the shore, and they all seem to bring a sense of peace and a feeling of calm that is seriously lacking in our daily lives regardless of geographic location. There are also those Simon & Garfunkel moments when time and motion stands still and we can retreat to those wonderfully quiet personal places that seem lost to us in a normal day. It was during one of my silent moments that I thought about the daily noise that assaults our senses and that we seem powerless to stop.
In tranquil surroundings all seems possible – mountains moved, if only metaphorically, novels written, at least page one, and where long lost loves are no longer unrequited. But why does tranquillity only seem to be a fleeting and unreliable girlfriend or boyfriend that leaves us in a heartbeat when real life rears its ugly and noisy head. It’s true that there is only so much we can do to extinguish the sounds of the city and other modern attacks on one of our most valuable senses. Even when we go for what should be an enjoyable daily lunch interlude or special occasion at our favourite restaurant, an unwelcome menu item is the melange of sound that makes conversation a lost art and laryngitis a more likely outcome than a great culinary experience.
Turn off the noise – turn up the attention
So why is it that given the ever increasing cacophony of intrusive and unnecessary noise pollution, when we have an opportunity to reduce this we don’t take it? Specifically, I’m talking about a subject near and dear to my heart both personally and professionally, contacting and engaging companies by phone and the challenges and interruptions that unwelcome and unnecessary noise bring with it. Recently I spoke to a leading triple play communications provider and it went something like this.
“Was that Terry? No Gerry!” I yelled at the contact centre agent taking my order as he asked me for my email address for the 3rd time. He still managed to my email wrong, along with my mobile number, as I found out to my distress when no confirmation or installation information was received. I don’t know about you, but despite the focus and hype surrounding digital self-service, few business really understand or deliver the mostly mythical “seamless experience.” Consequently, I still find myself regularly needing to speak to people in contact centres to complete transactions. That experience is not getting any better from an auditory perspective, when businesses fail to see the importance of providing a relatively quiet, conversationally conducive office space
Minimal design – Maximum interruptions
The problem has a number of elements. Firstly, contact centres generally feature open office design that is geared towards increasing teamwork, cooperation and productivity. Unfortunately the downside is that many organizations fail to create a physical environment that can absorb the sound of a multitude of people all speaking at a fairly high decibel level. Then, the headsets that many agents are equipped with, especially if worn incorrectly, are poor at reducing ambient sound. This results in hearing many different conversations from other agents that can almost drown out the one that you’re having. Finally the combination of potentially poor connections via mobile devices and inconsistent telephone system voice quality conspire to make even the most sensorial efficient of us reach for the hearing aid.
This perfect storm of preventable interruptions and ineffective equipment means that calls take longer, increasing costs for the company and time wasted by the customer. Errors happen more frequently, as I found out, which also can have cost and time implications for both parties. And the frustration level for both customer and employee leads to distorted conversations and an overall poor experience on both sides that stays in the memory, especially if customer-effecting mistakes are made. Conversely, a positive first conversation experience will leave your customers with the impression they are important to you and set the stage for a far more engaging and positive conversation for both customer and employee.
There’s no doubt that having the ability to reduce unnecessary noise and improve the acoustic soundscape pays dividends. In a classic experiment by Glass and Singer in the 70’s, two groups of participants were exposed to an unpleasant noise and told to do some work that required high levels of concentration. One group was given a button and told that they could turn off the noise when they want, but were encouraged not to because it would ruin the experiment. The second group was not given a button. You can guess which group had lower stress levels. If you said the one with the button, you are correct. Here’s the home run; this was true for those who didn’t even use the button. Give people the perception of control, even if it isn’t a real. It reduces stress, enhances performance, and can be a powerful contributor to positive employee experience.
The ears have it
The quality of your telephone headset is crucial in helping agents control their environment and achieve success in creating a natural balance in both hearing and business outcomes. Consequently, it is essential to look at your headsets not just as office equipment but rather as a vital business tool that can make or break a customer interaction. One organization that has recognized the value in significantly improving acoustic standards in the office environment, and especially the contact centre, is Plantronics. They consider breakthroughs in audio technology as their main raison d’etre. Plantronics pioneered the lightweight headset, the mobile headset, noise-cancelling technology, and the personal speakerphone, always driven by a single obsession to remove the barriers to simply smarter communications. Noise-cancelling can filter out background noise from the environment so the customer gets an improved audio experience, but the additional effect is that the general noise level in the office or contact centre environment will be lower. This also has a positive business effect on productivity as call centre agents consistently rate noise as having the biggest negative impact on their productivity.
Turning down the noise and turning up listening means that customer service advisers can engage in clear and unambiguous conversations where they can hear and be heard without resorting to megaphone level articulation. They are able to respond with clarity, perform naturally with more confidence and share the good feelings and spiritual uplift that friendly interactions can bring.
Now even in this world where virtual reality is, well virtual, I’m not saying that a great headset will magically transport you to that quiet and peaceful world of your holiday dreams. But breaking the sound barrier, providing a calm and quiet space where you can concentrate solely on the customer conversation can only enhance the customer and employee experience.
And that sounds good to me!