Lightening the Load: The Unique Psychology of a Call Center Agent


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We have all had at least one negative customer service experience. When dealing with a company we invest time and effort into navigating their automated system, and we must wait patiently through seemingly endless hold music. It is incredibly frustrating and disappointing when our efforts are rewarded with a service agent who is impatient, unhelpful, or even rude.

While 89% of companies now claim to be competing and differentiating based on the quality of their customer service, consumers have voiced their opinions about the reality of current service standards. A recent survey showed that only 1% of customers are satisfied with the service they receive, and 75% of customers say that their top service irritant is rude or condescending agents.

Consumers aren’t the only population being affected by poor customer service, agent’s aren’t happy either. 70% of call center agents are disengaged at their place of work, and customer service has one of the highest churn rates of any industry. It is as high as 70% for large call centers. What is going on here? Companies are ostensibly hiring 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.

Psychologist Skyler Place suspects that this might have something to do with an agent’s “cognitive load”. Cognitive load refers to the total amount of mental effort being used in the working memory. Most people assume that social tasks such as being empathic and communicating well do not require a lot of mental effort, that these things come naturally. But in fact, these social and communication tasks require mental effort in the same way solving a math problem does. This is known as “compassion fatigue” and research suggests that it can lead to increased burnout over time for individuals who must communicate empathy in their occupation. Good communication is especially difficult when there are a lot of things competing for our attention. This increased cognitive load can hamper our ability to communicate effectively. The call center is a uniquely stressful environment to work in, one associated with a very high intrinsic cognitive load. Under such pressure, 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, the agent is tasked to quickly assess the customer’s problem and provide a solution. But perhaps 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 the customer. This customer may already be irritable before they get on the phone; the onus is always on the agent to remain kind, patient, and respectful. They must calmly assess the customer’s problem and potential solutions, recognize how the customer is feeling, and communicate with that customer in an appropriate way.

All of this adds up to an energy depletion problem. The agent’s mental resources are chipped away at minute by minute, call after call. The agent might be able to communicate well for 5 calls, 10 calls, maybe 20. What happens at call 70? Repeatedly trying to navigate informational systems, find solutions, and carry a conversation at the same time can exhaust mental resources completely. If calls throughout the day are tense, difficult, and draining, cognitive capacity is directly affected – resulting in agents who struggle 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.

Real-time conversational guidance is a new way to reduce cognitive load and improve conversations. Technology rooted in behavioral science and artificial intelligence provides actionable insights to agents as a conversation is happening. The agent no longer has to expend mental energy on monitoring their conversation or recognizing when there are potential problems or opportunities with communication. Real-time conversational guidance automates this by analyzing behavioral signals within conversation, identifying key points in the exchange. These points include tension, frequent interruptions, changes in pace and tone, and awkward silences and pauses. By making an agent readily aware of these occurrences, they are empowered to have more efficient, effective, and empathetic exchanges with customers. Using technology to diminish an agent’s cognitive load means that they can put more focus and energy into problem solving during a single call, and increase their endurance throughout the day.

Companies don’t hire agents they think will be rude or condescending. Organizations moving to compete on the basis of customer experience strive to hire employees who are empathetic and kind. What they’re failing to account for is that good communication isn’t always “easy”, especially under the unique stress of the call center environment. Many of us would be surprised by how our own persona might change under such pressures. The key to unlocking an agent’s potential lies in relieving that stress, lightening the cognitive load, and giving them the tools they need to have productive and empathetic conversations.

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.


  1. Would it be wise to cross train your CSRs with some other task or function, and have them work half their time on the phones ant the other half on these other tasks? Or would it be better to make CSRing a part time position?


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