Alleviating Emotional Exhaustion in the Contact Center

Working at a frontline customer-facing job involves a high level of emotional exertion. Burnout, or mental exhaustion, and turnover are, therefore, statistical inevitabilities of contact centers.

Customer care Communicators are expected to display socially appropriate emotions and suppress negative ones. They are asked to create empathy, rapport and trust with customers and to appear happy and eager to serve. At the same time, they must continuously manage customer interactions and resolves issues—work which is generally acknowledged to be tedious and stressful—while being constantly monitored for adherence to procedures and schedules.

Communicators often have to deal with impatient, rude and aggressive customers on top of everything else. In fact, a Psychology Today study of call center workers in the U.S. found that some Communicators averaged up to 10 hostile encounters per day with customers.

Symptoms of burnout can manifest themselves in a demoralized and cynical staff that fails to provide meaningful interaction with customers. This will, of course, negatively impact service levels and customer satisfaction, as well as brand reputation and overall profitability.

What’s more, a University of British Columbia study on the effect of rudeness on call center employees reveals that employees respond to customer rudeness with similar discourteous behavior, creating a downward spiral in civility, substantially reducing service quality.

In this environment, what can contact center managers do to minimize burnout and create higher levels of employee engagement and customer care? Here are a few suggestions:

Hire stable employees: Assessing the overall mental stability of Communicator job applicants is critical for avoiding damaging interactions in the contact center. Weed out inappropriate candidates—those with predilections for anxiety, hypersensitivity, nervousness, moodiness, and low frustration or stress tolerance—using a personality assessment tool designed for your specific contact center. “Live bodies” ill-suited for the job will drag down the effectiveness of your entire operation.

Focus on quality, not costs: Emphasize customer satisfaction and first call resolution as your key performance indicators, not cost per call/interaction and average handle time. Otherwise, the work environment incorporates penalties for Communicators who do not hurry their customers off the phone to meet productivity standards. You create conflict stress for Communicators when you ask them to both act quickly and maximize customer satisfaction. Instead, empower Communicators with a mandate to do everything they can to satisfy the customer on the first call no matter how long it takes.

Lead by example: A Communicator’s tenure in your contact center is directly influenced by his or her supervisor. Supervisors who envision their role as enforcer/disciplinarian or who favor employees for reasons other than merit create apathy and frustration in their staff. On the other hand, supervisors who lead by example, coaching and providing constructive performance feedback, foster a sense of belonging among employees. Supervisors also must be given the time they need to coach, which may mean that contact center leaders need to increase the ratio of supervisors to Communicators.