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.

Best Practices of Top-Performing Frontline Managers

To maximize a team’s abilities, managers must spend a significant amount of time helping team members understand company objectives and coaching them to improve performance. Successful contact center managers have figured out how to address key factors impacting contact center operations, engendering smooth transactions and enhancing the customer experience.

Frontline managers who continuously seek quality improvements are the linchpins in a brand’s ability to meet customer expectations, retain customers, and then turn those customers into brand loyalists and advocates.

Here are some of their best practices for meeting contact center key performance metrics:

Be positive, helpful and accountable: Whether by nature or through company training, the most-effective frontline managers know how to motivate and coach Communicators to excel. Business leaders need to ensure that their frontline managers have the tools they need to set up their teams for success.  Sure, technology—from data and analysis tools to dashboard reporting—can buoy a manager’s ability to develop a top-performing team, but a people-first mentality is essential. Exuding a positive, can-do attitude and a willingness to help, including taking ownership of every call, will go a long way toward meeting contact center objectives.

Focus on employee engagement, retention and productivity: Acknowledge that most Communicators don’t plan to spend their careers in their current roles. Take the time to showcase how accomplishing their existing duties to the best of their abilities will benefit them down the road. This will motivate purpose-driven engagement in day-to-day tasks. Sensing that they are working toward the greater good, Communicators will experience heightened job fulfillment and put greater effort into their customer interactions. Ultimately, customer service will improve, leading to a heftier bottom line for the business.

Keep employees up to date on information: When customers call in to your contact center, they want their issues resolved quickly and effectively. Your Communicators are the face of your business whether interacting with customers in chat, on a call, through email or any other channel you provide. The value they bring to the customer relationship is dependent upon how well-informed they are about your products and services. Near real-time information can be critical to resolving customer issues and ensuring their satisfaction with your brand.

Mentor staff to handle stress: Communicators who feel attacked or undervalued will leave or simply fail to reach their full potential. Both situations—a high turnover rate/constant rehiring and low-performing workers, respectively—are damaging to any business. Let your Communicators know that not every interaction will go smoothly or every issue be resolved perfectly. Set reasonable expectations so staffers are not demotivated by a few glitches. Your own positive viewpoint, open communication style and lending hand will establish an environment conducive to the retention of both employees and customers.

Frontline managers who willingly provide team mentorship and support, are imbued with a positive spirit and eagerness to help, and who hold themselves personally accountable for the actions of their staff are crucial to contact center performance—and deserve a pat on the back.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

The Psychology Behind Delivering Superior Customer Service

Appreciating the emotions involved in customer service is the first step toward creating a better customer experience. Sure, feelings are not something humans can always control—and they sometimes seem nebulous, random and unexplainable—but, fear not, there is a science to ridding your contact center of negative emotions that upend Communicator performance and dismay customers.

What you might never have thought about—but is known among certain academicians—is that Communicator treatment of customers is directly associated to how Communicators and other contact center staff treat each other.

Believe it or not, kindness toward each other in the workplace is a marker for the behaviors and performance of employees. In fact, research indicates that a negative relationship between colleagues has immediate and long-term detrimental effects on employee engagement, commitment and performance. According to the findings of a study published in the Harvard Business Review, 48 percent of workers who have been on the receiving end of incivility have intentionally decreased their work effort.

Twelve percent actually left their jobs due to their treatment. A full 78 percent said that their commitment to the organization declined. As many as 80 percent lost work time worrying about the incident, and 63 percent lost work time avoiding the offender.

One-quarter of the workers subject to workplace rudeness admitted to taking their frustrations out on customers!

Interestingly, the study found that people are made anxious when they see others treated poorly whether the treatment was delivered in private but overhead, deserved (e.g., due to incompetence) or the result of questionable or illegal actions.

As a contact center leader, what can you do to keep your own behavior in check and foster civility among workers? Here are a few tips:

Model good behavior: Managers set the tone, so be sure to lead by example. One way to create a culture of respect and bring out the best in employees is to show appreciation for their pleasant behavior. Keep an open line of communication and periodically ask for your Communicators’ feedback on your management style.

Hire civil people: Look for emotional intelligence when interviewing Communicator candidates. Less-formal group interviews often work to expose poor behaviors that might be suppressed in formal interviews. If possible, talk to previous employers to find out how the individual related to colleagues.

Teach appropriate behavior: Role-playing is a good technique for teaching civility in the workplace. Another tool is live listening, or even playback options, for various interactions to capture employees’ patterns of behavior, and then coach accordingly.

Offer rewards and penalties: Make respectful treatment of both employees and customers part of performance reviews. Further, consider implementing a system for measuring overall teamwork, not just individual outcomes.

Too Much Sales Pressure Leads to Negative Results

“Rigid, relentless sales goals” are the reason, according to a Bloomberg report, that Wells Fargo & Co. employees opened more than 2 million unauthorized accounts since 2011, leading to a federal investigation into whether criminal charges should be filed. Already this year, the bank has agreed to pay $185 million in civil fines, and the company’s CEO John Stumpf has consented to forfeit compensation worth about $45 million—all in an effort to appease lawmakers and regain the trust of customers.

The fake accounts allegedly resulted in consumers paying fees of about $2.4 million between May 2011 and July 2015.

More than 5,000 Wells Fargo employees have been fired for participating in the ruse—but many more were fired earlier for NOT meeting the bank’s “outrageous sales goals.” In fact, a class action lawsuit has been filed in California on behalf of the workers who claim the bank fired or demoted them for not bending the rules to hit aggressive sales targets.

Obviously, employees were trapped between a rock and a hard place when it came to doing their jobs. This sort of catch-22 is not limited to Wells Fargo or even the banking industry. Bankers outside Wells Fargo have called the deceptive sales practices systemic across the industry, and history shows that Wells Fargo is just the latest in a long string of companies that have seen employee incentive programs go terribly wrong.

So, what can sales managers and business executives do to keep performance goals from corroding the culture in their organizations?

The first step is to acknowledge that an incentive to perform brings with it a temptation to cheat. Then enact the following practices to offset the potential for negative behavior:

  • Set strict controls: Combined with an ethics policy and training, strong internal controls will encourage good employees to stick to the straight and narrow. Management policy and practice should aim to ensure that all sales are recorded, made at correct prices, and fulfilled to customers’ satisfaction. Be sure to assign accountability to someone other than the affected parties.
  • Enact realistic quotas: Check metrics over time to determine whether your employees are hitting their marks. If not, determine what issues are preventing them from meeting goals. Share findings so workers can adjust their efforts to align with incentive payout and stay motivated. Monitor and tweak the incentive program as the company and economy changes so it continues to support business objectives.
  • Forge a strong company culture: Create a simple set of values and stick to them, specifying guidelines for inappropriate actions. Any idea that fails to live up to those values should be rejected out of hand. Failure to publicly and rapidly police any cheating will create a culture of willful ignorance, which will become systemic and cause many more people to join in the immoral and/or illicit activity.

Attaching a symbolic meaning, such as status, to incentives can also help reduce cheating and other adverse consequences, e.g., pay inequality (which can fuel turnover) and decreased intrinsic interest in the work being performed. To give incentives meaning beyond monetary import, consider having them delivered by a high-level executive and/or in public.

Keep in mind that the good results generated by financial incentives, including motivating higher levels of performance and productivity, need to be weighed against the bad.

Unfortunately for Wells Fargo, the scale tipped toward the latter. The bank has announced that starting Jan. 1, the sales goals for its consumer bankers will be eliminated.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

Getting Contact Center Data Into the Right Hands to Improve Processes

Your contact center leaders have collected enough data on your customers to ensure that the contact center can meet their needs and remain a vital force in achieving company goals. But these leaders can’t make the necessary changes on their own; your contact center does not function well as an island. Successful operation requires collaboration with other business units, like sales, marketing and IT. So, how do you get critical data insights from the contact center into the right hands across the organization to drive process improvements?

Well, there’s a process for driving process improvements, and it goes like this:

Rid your business of organizational silos: You can’t do this across the board, of course, as some silos provide necessary structure to your organization; instead, aim to destroy the problems caused by silos.  That is, keep the structure that advances accountability and responsibility, but lose the tunnel vision that inhibits communication and cooperation. Look for areas where decreasing autonomy and increasing collaboration would be beneficial to the business. Put measures in place that prevent decisions from being made in isolation going forward.

Develop a mechanism to define initiatives and submit them for prioritization, approval and funding: Given today’s level of customer expectations and business competition, project choices are critical to the very survival of organizations that must make the best use of limited resources. To eliminate bias and errors, decision makers should use a formal approach—whether quantitative or qualitative—when prioritizing projects. Next, the value of the project vs. its cost must be established; this ratio provides a basis of understanding across the organization about what is important. Make sure that systems are in place so that the value is consistent with the organization’s fundamental objectives and strategy.

Ensure that information management activities are effective and successful: This initiative must encompass all the systems and processes within your organization for the creation and use of corporate information. Recognize the complexities that exist and commit to managing them. There are no silver bullets, so avoid oversimplified solutions. Once the initiative is defined, focus on buy-in and active participation of staff throughout your organization; communicate extensively. Adoption will be elusive unless the project delivers tangible and visible benefits; so, make sure all your ducks are in a row as regards identifying concrete business needs and how you’ll measure the project’s impact. This is a long journey; don’t try to account for every factor during development or the project will come to a standstill. Assume that small tweaks will continue to be necessary throughout implementation.

Companies that act on contact center data and analysis to address top priorities will gain the upper hand at providing stellar customer experiences and omnichannel services—hallmarks of today’s most successful businesses.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

Champion Your Contact Center This Olympic Season

The Olympics is about more than just sports. In all the hubbub surrounding world records and gold medals, there’s an undercurrent of something even more compelling: the stories behind the athletes.

People with such extraordinary levels of focus and dedication invariably encounter obstacles along the way, but their determination to keep going despite those obstacles is what makes a good story. Like gymnast Kieran Behan who was once confined to a wheelchair and told he would never walk again. Or 18-year-old Syrian refugee Yusra Mardini, who had to push a sinking boat through the Aegean Sea for hours after fleeing the country.

Everyone can learn a lot from these athletes, not the least of which is the value of hard work. Business leaders, too, can look to them for inspiration. There’s been a lot written about the mental prowess of Olympic athletes, and how mental skills training—like visualization and concentration—can be useful in the business world. In the contact center, visualization tools are handily used to help Communicators be more successful in their jobs, and improving concentration is an essential part of managing stress.

I believe there are greater takeaways, however, on a less scientific level. No matter what their individual story, every Olympic athlete has one thing in common: a winning attitude. Part of that includes setting challenging goals and managing the process of achieving them. The same principle applies to success in the contact center. Have you defined your contact center’s goals clearly and documented them? Do your daily tasks contribute to achieving those goals? By demonstrating a high level of commitment on a daily basis, you’re developing the “will to win.”

A winning attitude also means being dedicated to performing your best. No matter where your contact center is in the evolutionary process—multichannel or omnichannel, technologically challenged or on the cutting edge—we need to measure success our own way. Although we put great emphasis on being the best, start with trying to be better than you already are. In what ways can you move your contact center forward, one step at a time? Sports psychologist Peter Haberl put it best: “When you become your own yardstick, you experience success, no matter if you win or lose.”

Enjoy the 2016 Olympics! Then bring that winning attitude closer to home.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

Is Talent Development on Your To-do List?

A recurring item on every contact center manager’s list of concerns is retaining customer care agents. In contrast, an item that’s often missing from that very same list is talent development. The key to addressing the former is to take action on the latter; yet, for a variety of reasons, very few managers do so.

Most people want to do their best and get ahead, but they receive surprisingly little direction beyond the basics they need to do well in their present positions. To move the needle forward, managers should be thinking beyond the present, and look to identify and develop talent within their ranks. Talented people who want to grow are an enormous asset for any business. Not only will they be top performers, they’ll also inspire others to do their best—both of which are hallmarks of a future leader, and the cornerstone of a successful business.

To identify talent, look for the following attributes when vetting a Communicator. He or she:

  • has a high level of respect among peers;
  • has an excellent track record when it comes to traditional measures of job competency;
  • is open to feedback and constructive criticism;
  • is cognizant of the company’s overall mission and goals, rather than a narrow focus on the individual job;
  • handles change well; and
  • has relationship-building skills.

Once you’ve identified these attributes in an employee, let him or her know. Informing employees that you’ve recognized their potential to lead signals that your organization recognizes and develops talent, which is a powerful incentive to stay. You’re also building a reputation outside the company, one that will attract other talented Communicators.

To develop talent:

  • Provide growth experiences outside the employee’s usual job function, with support in place. This gives Communicators a chance to demonstrate their capability in other situations, and the cross-training will increase their knowledge of the organization.
  • Provide access to a professional network. By introducing your most talented Communicators to other professionals in the field and connecting them with outside learning opportunities, you’re giving them other sources for advice and information that will increase their understanding of the business.
  • Set goals for moving up. In all situations, advancement requires reaching goals. Discuss the objectives that need to be met and set realistic goals.

Strong organizations are built around strong people; now is the time to start building.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

Why Customer Care Success Starts With the C-Suite

As the leader of a call center, your job encompasses a wide variety of tasks, not the least of which is motivating and inspiring your Communicators. Effective managers seem to do the job effortlessly, when in reality they are purposefully employing a host of skills and techniques to support their staff, which in turn increases the quality of service.

 
Good leadership is really about people—communicating with them, giving them opportunities to grow, and inspiring them to do their very best. Doing it well is challenging, but also extremely rewarding. Here are a few tips for ensuring that your own performance brings out the best in your Communicators:

 
Lead by example. Define your own standard of excellence and abide by it. Modeling the expected behavior is the number-one way to influence your Communicators to do the same. You’re also giving people a reason to believe in you, and in your ability to do the job.

Show your employees that you care about them. Telling your employees that you care about them is a good start, but your words will be more meaningful if you put them into action. Look for ways to interact with team members and start building relationships (our annual summer barbeque gives me a chance to grill my newest employees!). Putting the team first makes you a more credible leader.

Take every opportunity to coach—and to recognize excellence. These behaviors go hand-in-hand. Outside of regular training sessions, there are times when guidance or advice offered on a more personal basis is appropriate. If you notice a Communicator struggling on a call, don’t let the opportunity to offer words of advice, explain a process, or give encouragement pass. Similarly, seize the moment when you see a Communicator going above and beyond, or observe him or her capably handling a customer interaction.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

Ways to Make Morale a Priority

It’s hard to pin down a definition of high or low morale in the workplace, but you know it when you see it. A team with high morale is confident they can do the job, disciplined about performing it, and motivated to tackle whatever comes their way. On the other hand, low morale looks just the opposite—your agents may be working, but there’s no sense of enthusiasm or positivity.

It’s no secret that morale has a major impact on the workplace, particularly in the customer care arena. In a setting with low morale, Communicators aren’t likely to go the extra mile in their service efforts or present a pleasant demeanor during customer interactions. Customers can sense when the person on the other end of the line is unhappy, a feeling that will permeate the entire exchange. So even if the idea of raising morale seems like a nebulous concept, its benefits are clearly measurable in the strength of your bottom line.

If you’re noticing an increase in turnover, frequent employee absences, or an undercurrent of conflicts or complaints, try some of these morale-boosting strategies:

  • Reconnect with your Communicators. Practice “management by walking around,” so you can connect with employees spontaneously. Unplanned conversations could yield impromptu suggestions, ideas, and the sharing of thoughts in the moment. Make sure you’re listening.
  • Say “thank you” more often. Reward Communicators frequently for a job well done, which could mean anything from saying “great job” or “thanks” to things like giving gift certificates or awarding flextime hours.
  • Make staff development a priority. Hold regular one-on-one meetings to understand individual needs and skills, and provide training and development opportunities as often as possible. Create formal ways for staff members to learn from one another.
  • Show Communicators the results of their hard work. Share positive feedback with all agents, and consider sharing any good news related to the clients you work for. After all, their success wouldn’t be possible without the hard work of your Communicators.

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.

Why Positive Reinforcement is Essential to Communicators’ Success

Customer care representatives have a mentally grueling and incredibly tough job.  While other employees can hide in their cubicles when they’re having a tough day, Communicators must constantly display a sunny and positive demeanor when speaking to customers.

Unfortunately, Communicators don’t always get the credit they deserve. In fact, it’s rare for customers to shell out many “thank yous” to customer care professionals. After all, customers expect high-quality customer care experiences.

Not receiving positive reinforcement for a job well done, however, can be hard on Communicators at times. It’s common for Communicators to feel like they are running a marathon without anyone on the sidelines cheering them on, which can negatively impact their daily work performance and overall well-being.

In fact, a study of over 1,700 employees conducted by the American Psychological Association (APA) indicated that more than half of all employees intended to search for new jobs because they felt underappreciated and undervalued.

Rather than sit back and wait for customers to show appreciation toward your Communicators, take it upon yourself to do so. Providing positive reinforcement can be achieved through small or big gestures.

For example, simply taking the time each month to thank your team or individual team members for a job well done can go a long way. Or perhaps you want to show more appreciation by taking your employees on a fun outing each quarter to reward them for their success.

Whether you choose to go small or big doesn’t matter. What matters is showing your Communicators that you appreciate their hard work and value them an as an employee. In doing so, you will create a more positive work environment, which leads to more productive and successful employees.

So how will you give a big “thank you” to your team of hard working Communicators this month?

Steve Brubaker began his career at InfoCision in 1985. In his current role as Chief of Staff and as a member of the Executive Team, he is responsible for HR, internal and external communications, and manages the company’s legal and compliance departments. Brubaker is a member of a number of professional organizations, including the DMA, SOCAP, and PACE. He also donates his time to serve on several university boards, including the Executive Advisory Board for The Taylor Institute for Direct Marketing at The University of Akron and The University of Akron Foundation Board. He is a frequent speaker for national events and has also been honored with a number of awards and recognitions for his contributions to the call center industry.