It has been widely reported that agents can suffer from emotional stress, leading to emotional burn out for staff, which in turn leads to a high attrition rate within the industry. We have spoken about this prevalent problem within call centres in our recent articles on Gamification and Home Shoring, providing pointers towards a solution to high attrition rates, however these are not always the right solution for every contact centre. Changes can be made in call centre organisation, including management practices, processes, enabling technology and providing training for all staff. However in order for us to implement the most efficient change it is useful to explore the different causes of emotional stress.
“The customer perception of quality service is significantly affected by the nature of interaction with frontline staff.”
Peccei and Rosenthal, The Antecedents of Employee Commitment to Customer Service
The customer service professional is recognised as central to the customer perception of the quality of service. According to Fineman in his work Stress, Emotion and intervention, this may require the call centre agent to forego their natural emotions and smile down the telephone which can cause tension between the employee’s inner feelings and the requirement of outward display needed by the company. This description points towards an individual working under considerable duress and discounts the element of choice that the customer service professional has in performing the task. It also discounts the employee’s inherent customer service ethic and desire to make a contribution in their role.
The nature of call centre work today is certainly competitive and can be stressful. Off shoring is an established competitor to the UK for call centre contracts. We can understand how the employee can be left behind in favour of higher profits and the ability to handle more calls, however, this sacrificial approach to people management can only be sustained where there is a large talent pool to recruit from. In both developing and developed countries when people know they are not valued and simply ‘a bum on a seat’ it can lead to low morale, poor performance and attrition.
Those outside of the industry have criticised the quality control of call centre work, in particular the supervision placed on call centre agents to adhere to targets, the use of agent scripts and the surveillance of call centre workers. The Health and Safety Executive based in the University of Sheffield has gone as far as describing the call centre as a modern day “Satanic mills” in the same vein as Blake.
Unfavourable comparisons have also been made between the way a call centre is managed and that of the factory floor. In both scenarios workers are operating within a target driven environment. Looking first at the factory environment:
“The main problems faced by the operatives on the assembly line related to ‘Speed Up'”
Beyon, Working for Ford
The concept of ‘speed up’ is the act of speeding up the assembly line to increase operational output, in both call centres as in the Ford Factories. Beyon spoke about this setting of unrealistic targets can lead to emotional stress on the part of the worker. Within the call centre the use of power diallers for outbound calling carries this risk as does an over zealous approach to managing average call handling time, (assuming the average is the target to aim for).
However not all call centres are the same and it is a mistake to claim they are. We argue that making generalisations and demonising call centres is due to a lack of understanding in how they work and the positive benefits that can be achieved through working in them.
Targets are key to the way the call centre operates and understanding the metrics is essential. Experienced managers fully appreciate that a successful operation balances the different tensions and conflicts to provide the best quality service at a cost effective rate.
A well written script or call guide can be a useful resource in helping the call centre agent maintain the professional image of a company, however it is only a tool and clearly needs to be adapted to each customer conversation. The skill of a customer service professional involves the synthesising of customer needs with what the organisation can offer and utilising empathy, intuition and applied intelligence to ensure the customer is satisfied. These skills can be taught and developed but not scripted. Clearly, unless flexibility is given to the agent for their conversation damage can be done to the brand and quality of experience of the customer.
In our article on Gameification, we highlighted some of the changes needed and recommended giving frontline agents greater discretion on how calls are handled. For those concerned that this lack of control will lead to an abuse of power, our caveat is that adequate means of measuring employee performance should be in place. This means aligning appropriate metrics to monitor the response of the customers, staff, team leaders and managers.
Creating a work environment where call centre agents can satisfactorily resolve customer issues and provide high levels of customer does not occur by accident. It takes careful thought and orchestration of many different elements.
Managers should keep a close eye on the performance of the call centre to act as both a check on the quality of work provided by the staff and as a major support network for staff to avoid emotional stress.
At dancing lion we can help you transform and improve the quality of your call centre service and customer experience.