New Realities for the Contact Center


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There is no contact center employee, anywhere in the world, who hasn’t dealt with an angry and dissatisfied customer. On a good day, when the staffer takes that next call, the product failure or service complaint will be fairly simple to resolve. On a bad day, the same staffer may take death threats – and contact center managers need to be equipped to manage those extremes as well as the day-to-day tension and stress.

When it comes to violent threats, our heightened cultural sensitivity to workplace shootings or mass casualty incidents comes in part because they’re visible. In the worst-case scenarios, they result in high-profile incidents that happen far too often. Most consumers don’t think of the call center – with its disembodied and interchangeable voices, seeming just about as impersonal as the automated system – as a target for credible threats. Yet that’s exactly what happened in Overland Park, Kansas, on June 14.

A night-shift call center employee at U.S. Bank spoke with a man who said he had guns and threatened to shoot up the facility. Police assisting the call center workers followed procedures you’d expect for any business, as they evacuated the building and began an investigation. They continued trying to track the call, with some speculation that a disgruntled employee was behind the threats. Meanwhile, some night staffers refused to continue their shifts and went home because they didn’t feel safe – and notably, did not feel they were being given enough information. The next morning, employees reporting to the U.S. Bank facility were met at the door by security teams who searched them before allowing them to enter the building, and management contacted them by email to explain that would be a new daily reality.

The incident, though, isn’t really a “new” daily reality for contact center employees who are subjected to anger, violent threats and abusive language all the time. Facility managers and law enforcement teams acted quickly and professionally to ensure that no mass shooting occurred, but the unhappy reality is that invisible threats just like that happen all the time, and not every contact manager is attentive to that, or understands how to empower contact center employees to respond.

The depression, anxiety and stress associated with the call center environment are already a problem because employees lack the autonomy to make customer-centered decisions, or are held to impossibly high performance targets without the resources to achieve them, or they’re micromanaged within an inch of their lives. Add a daily death threat into the toxic mix, and it can fast become a mental health issue – or worse. That’s true in the U.S., India, Philippines, Canada; in fact, a 2014 study in an Indian medical journal lists abusive customers among the reasons for soaring rates of depression, anxiety and worker stress: “Call-time pressure, dealing with hostile customers, reading prescripted conversations on the phone endlessly, system monitoring of call activities, and difficulty in providing good customer service while simultaneously meeting time targets were found to be significant sources of job stress.”

In an industry with a 46 percent employee turnover rate in 2013, much of it in the problem-solving roles, it’s critical for call center managers to take seriously the impact of irate customers on staff well-being. Policies that require all center agents to simply “take it” no matter vitriolic, profane or threatening the caller may get are short-sighted – empowered agents, together with management that realizes some customers aren’t worth having, and some situations simply cannot be resolved. Cutting a call short without resolution shouldn’t always result in a “black mark” on the call agent in such situations, and sometimes the best resolution is no resolution.

It’s one thing to understand that the call center is a flashpoint because of the negative circumstances in which some customers find themselves: disconnections, collections, billing errors, outages and service disputes, dissatisfaction with products and performance – but above all, people. Being responsible for those people means exercising real leadership and empowering the staff to manage more than the calls.

Are your training programs and policies serious about protecting employees who face threatening calls laced with blistering profanity and insults? Are those staff empowered to cut off toxic, threatening or profane callers? The fact is, in such situations, the customer isn’t always right, and there are situations where a caller’s righteous indignation may escalate to a level that has a significant negative impact on your contact center staff, and where no resolution is possible.

The first place to check isn’t in the manuals. Begin by asking employees themselves how the vitriol is affecting them, and be sure they know there’s no penalty for telling the truth. It may seem like a time-consuming exercise that’s hardly profitable, but creating a safe environment for call center employees to tell their own stories is a huge step in affirming their value to the company. Review those manuals together, with less of an emphasis on whether they’re covering all the liability and HR bases – they should do that too – and more interest in whether they actually work.

Angry customers aren’t going away, and the call center probably isn’t a healthy environment for people who are exceptionally fragile or thin-skinned. Fair enough, but does your firm have a realistic definition of escalation that occurs during “calls gone bad” contacts? Are you taking staff concerns seriously when they do? That doesn’t necessarily mean you’re calling the police every time a customer with an account suspension makes vague threats, but it does mean more than a “get over it” shrug and eye roll from the boss. It also means backing the employee, rather than the customer, no matter how valuable the client.

When abusive or threatening callers are transferred, it shouldn’t be held against the first-line operator, whether your firm has written or unwritten rules about making that decision. The latter may be even more pervasive in call center culture, especially among workers who are more motivated by being effective and well-regarded in their jobs, and less concerned about call transfer caps or percentages.

Thankfully, it’s the rare caller whose threats result in the 911 call and the evacuation necessary at the Kansas call center – but evaluating that threat is a stressful decision too. Managers who help their employees process that stress need to be intentional about it. Having a workout room or yoga classes or an employee assistance program isn’t a substitute for acknowledging that traumatic threat yourself.

Follow up with any employee who has been affected by threats – all of them, if necessary – and make sure they have all the information they need to feel safe. That’s not just to keep them in their seats and deter them from leaving. It’s so that closure is part of the process, and that process inspires confidence. Next time, and there is always a next time, they’ll know the threat they hear isn’t just their problem on just another day on the job.

Amas Tenumah
Amas Tenumah is a customer experience consultant and founder of BetterXperience ( He has helped improve profit margins for businesses of all sizes with client-focused strategies to enhance revenues, drive new and repeat business, and delight customers.


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