Combatting Burnout in the Contact Center


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This holiday season, people are likely to order gifts online because it’s fast and simple. One unintended consequence, though, is the subsequent delay in delivery, ultimately leading, to an increase in anxious customer calls in search of missing gifts.

When choosing to call a company, people have to invest time and effort into navigating their automated system and wait with patience through seemingly endless hold music. The call starts with the intent of tracking down a delayed delivery or resolving an erroneous billing problem, but then ends up becoming an incredibly frustrating or disappointing interaction with a service agent who is impatient, unhelpful, or even rude. What customers may not know is, the agents aren’t exactly happy either. With 70% of call center agents disengaged, customer service has one of the highest attrition rate of any industry – as high as 45% compared to 15% in other industries. Call Center employees report at least one interaction a day will be with an angry or hostile customer calling about a problem that can’t be easily resolved. The call center can be a stressful workplace; challenging calls coupled with low autonomy and a strict emphasis on efficiency and timeliness in the workplace contribute to significant burnout.

Why the Poor Customer Experience?

Companies make an effort to hire candidates who display the qualities of good customer service representatives; empathy, warmth, and excellent conversational skills. But when these same candidates get into the call center, something changes drastically. This phenomenon may have something to do with an agent’s “cognitive load.” Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in a given moment – e.g. interacting with a customer on a live call, writing notes, looking up information, and ultimately, resolving the customer’s issue.

Most people assume that social tasks such as being empathic and communicating well do not require a lot of mental effort, that they come naturally. However, these social and communication tasks require the same amount of mental effort it takes to solve a difficult math problem. These tasks often result in what is known as “compassion fatigue,” which research suggests can lead to increased burnout over time for individuals who must communicate empathy in their occupation.

Think about the doctor or social worker who seems “drained” after years in the field. Good communication is especially difficult when there are a lot of things competing for our attention. Increased cognitive load can hamper our ability to communicate effectively. The call center is a uniquely stressful and mentally taxing environment to work in, and one associated with a very high intrinsic cognitive load. Under such pressure, even those candidates who seemed perfect for a job in customer service may have difficulty communicating empathically.

A day of work in the call center involves short, repetitive interactions, sustained over a long period of time. Each time a customer calls in, they must navigate a number of screens and systems to quickly assess the customer’s problem and provide an appropriate solution. But even more importantly, the agent also has the difficult task of building a new relationship with a complete stranger. This means using cognitive effort to communicate effectively with a customer whomay already be irritable because of the issue they are experiencing or because they were left on hold. The onus is always on the agent to remain kind, patient, and respectful. They must calmly assess not only the customer’s problem and potential solutions, but also recognize how the customer is feeling and communicate with that customer in an appropriate way.

All of this adds up to a serious energy depletion problem. The agent’s mental resources are chipped away at minute by minute, call after call. An agent might be able to communicate well for 5 calls, 10 calls, maybe 20. What happens at call 70? Imagine that just having one good conversation takes a lot of focus and energy. Having 50 or more each day, trying to navigate informational systems, and finding solutions at the same time can exhaust mental resources. If calls throughout the day are tense, difficult, and draining, by the end of the shift an agent may simply lack the cognitive capacity to display the empathy and compassion they usually do with new customers. Agents need a way to ease that cognitive load if they are to remain engaged throughout the work day, and more importantly, avoid physical symptoms of stress induced illness.

Best Practices to Address Burnout

Real time conversational guidance is one way to reduce cognitive load and improve conversations. Many of us struggle to hold engaging conversations even without the extra distractions of a call center environment. A little bit of help can go a long way towards lightening the load.

New technology, based on cutting edge behavioral science, is able to provide actionable insights in real time as a conversation is happening. The agent no longer has to spend the mental energy on monitoring their conversation or recognizing when there are potential problems with communication. ew technology will do it for the agent, by analyzing the behavioral signals in a conversation and identifying points of interest in the exchange. These can include tension in one participant’s voice, frequent interruptions, or awkward pauses. By making an agent readily aware of these occurrences, they can fall more naturally into a pattern of conversation that is efficient, effective, and empathetic. Handing that chunk of the cognitive load over to technology means that an agent can put more focus on problem solving during a single call, but also have greater endurance throughout the day.

Encouraging agents with positive feedback in real time is a more effective system to reward good communication and provide acknowledgment of consistent quality communication. Agents are rewarded for speed and accuracy in problem-solving and documentation in call center systems, so why not reward agents for the quality communication which also requires a great deal of effort. In addition to increased mental endurance, agents who use this technology will find that their conversations are consistently smoother and more productive. If an agent spends less mental effort on making calls empathetic, cheerful, and successful, then an agent will have a much easier time maintaining their energy. This will lead to happier, more engaged agents who perform better at their jobs. And might make those tricky holiday gift calls a bit easier to get through, too.

Steve Kraus
Steve brings over twenty years of experience in marketing, selling, and delivering customer engagement solutions to the world's most customer-centric organizations. Prior to joining Cogito, Steve led product marketing for Pegasystems, growing the CRM suite from a niche player into a recognized leader for marketing, sales, and service applications.


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