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GREAT CUSTOMER SERVICE IS A TWO WAY STREET!

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Throughout my working life I have worked in Customer service with over 30 years in the contact centre arena.

I have even spent my fair share of time dealing with customers over the phone, my record day taking 187 calls in a 12 hour shift, which equates to an average of 3m 30s a call, when stripping out time for well earned breaks.

I can remember this record day vividly, as it was for a Cable TV and telephone company and was on a billing and disconnect day.

This was probably the worst day of each month, when customers had either received their bills and were unhappy about the charges shown, and also the day when many customers had their services terminated for non-payment. On top of this, there were additional calls relating to intermittent service, poor picture or call quality and a myriad of other general enquiries. The majority of customers I spoke with were very unpleasant to say the least and others downright abusive.

So I am sure you are now asking yourself, what’s this got to do with Customer Service in contact centres being a two way street?

Well the answers quite simple, giving great customer service isn’t all down to the agent in the contact centre, some of the responsibility lies with the customers themselves!

Now this may sound a little strange, so let me go into this in a little more depth and you can draw your own conclusions.

Let’s start with the typical profile of a contact centre employee, 70% are in the 18 to 30 age group, with a split of 60% female and 40% male. For many this is their first job following high school or university graduation. So they have little or no work experience.

Luckily, most reputable businesses, give good induction into the company, and in depth product and service training. This is often coupled with what’s known as “soft skills” training which encompasses topics such as, problem solving, phone etiquette, dealing with angry customers, and often involves a lot of role playing so the new agent can experience handling calls without actually dealing with real customers.

Often, they are “buddied up” with an experienced agent, so they can both listen to live calls and even take a few with customers under the guidance of their experienced co-workers. In some contact centres, they will move from training into what’s known as the “Graduation Bay” where they are well supervised, coached, mentored and supported until they feel confident and comfortable to “Fly solo” and to start taking live calls unsupervised with real customers.

So now you may think that after all of this in-depth training, coupled with the support of experienced agents, team leaders and supervisors that they will receive, that they will be able to cope with anything thrown at them, with the confidence that they have all the necessary tools to do their job.

Unfortunately, nothing can prepare them for what will happen next.

Now we all have experienced rude and irate people in our lives. Every day when I drive to work I experience the inconsiderate, reckless, stupid driver who will change lanes without signalling making me break unexpectedly. Or the one who drives up the opposite side of the road only to cut in at the last minute to avoid crashing into oncoming traffic. Or the one who parks inconsiderately making it difficult to manoeuvre around a corner. You know the type I mean.

Well imagine this, coming across one of these every 5 minutes throughout your journey, what sort of state would you be in when you arrive at work? Now imagine this magnified 10 times over, day in day out……………that’s what a contact centre agent more often than not experiences.

So how awful can their working day be?

Surely it can’t be that bad? When you click on Google and type in call centre photos and look at the images, what do you see? Rows and rows of happy smiling contact centre agents, surely this isn’t an illusion?

I know that in most call centres the pay and benefits are above average. There is free transport to and from work, an on site gym, free hair dressing salon, subsidised meals, medical insurance, food vouchers, free organised parties, free sports such as football, volleyball and dancing lessons. So what’s not to be happy about!

Well, If you were to interview many contact centre agents you would hear many tales of emotional and verbal abuse received from the customers they interact with, they are sworn at, called morons, slow, retarded, stupid and much worse. In some cases they are even physically threatened by customers. Can you imagine being treated like this in your place of work every day when you are there to help people?

In the normal working environment, this can never happen however in the contact centre, agents are required to continue with the call, trying to placate the customer and to solve the problem. In addition, they have to do this without showing reaction, without defending themselves, as to react to such provocations can cost them their jobs.

Guy Winch, Ph.D., the author of The Squeaky Wheel, in an article published in Psychologist Today back in March, 2011 entitled “The Last Bullying Frontier” excellently explains the dynamics of this interaction and why it occurs. Here is an extract:   

The Bullying Power Dynamic

This grossly uneven power dynamic between caller and call-center representative is something of which we the public take full advantage. After going through automated menus or waiting too long on 'hold' we take out our anger and frustration on people whose job prevents them from fighting back-in doing so we are bullying them in every sense of the word.

What is striking from a psychological and sociological perspective is how common it is to hear otherwise decent people confess to treating call-center representatives in a manner they would consider verbally abusive and reprehensible in any other context. In fact, we are so desensitized to the plight of call-center employees, such stories are often related without a hint of remorse or recognition of the mental anguish the representative in question might have endured. In other words we demonstrate a problematic lack of empathy (read How to Test Your Empathy here).

Why We Dehumanize Call Center Representatives

There are several reasons why we allow ourselves to bully call-center representatives:

1. We tend to view them as literal representatives of the companies responsible for our frustrations and problems-thus we hold them personally responsible (even though they had nothing to do with our problem) and feel they are fair targets for our anger and frustration.

2. Never seeing their faces allows us to switch off psychological filters such as civility and empathy. As a result, we typically feel no remorse for our actions and have little sympathy for the plight of the call-center employee who was subjected to them. In other words, we are in denial about the emotional and psychological distress our bullying might cause.

3. Our complaining psychology is such that we are convinced (often erroneously) the 'company' will make it as difficult as possible for us to resolve our problem or get through to a live person. As a result we get into a veritable battle mentality even before dialing the toll-free number.

The Consequences of Bullying Call-Center Representatives

The impact of our bullying has severe consequences for call-center employees as well as the industry as a whole. Call-center representatives typically experience severe and chronic stress and have high rates of medical absenteeism, burnout and depression. As a result, call-centers have one of the highest employee attrition rates in any industry because few workers can manage our psychological and emotional assaults for long.

The annual costs to companies of having to regularly hire and train new call-center employees can run hundreds of millions of dollars or more. The rapid turnover also creates a vicious cycle in which a chronic influx of new workers increases the likelihood of us encountering hesitant and inexperienced representatives, which then frustrates us and inflames our tempers even further. (read about Complaint Handling: Why Companies and Customers both Fail).

Dehumanizing call-center employees and treating them as emotional punching bags represents the kind of societal bullying that should be as intolerable as any other form of bullying we decry today. It is a behaviour that causes staggering financial losses to companies and untold emotional and psychological ones to tens of thousands of our fellow Americans.

It is up to us as citizens and as consumers to acknowledge victims of bullying wherever they exist. Let's remind ourselves that call-center representatives are there to help us and that treating them with respect and civility will make our encounters with them less frustrating for us, less painful for them and more productive for all.

So the next time you are about to make a call to a contact centre please remember these things:

1. It is likely if the contact centre is busy that you will have to wait in a queue, so please relax and be patient, your call WILL be answered

2. When your call is answered just think the agent on the other end of the line will have probably have been dealing with angry customers one after another for hours, so bring them a “breath of fresh air” and be nice to them, they are there to help you

3. They personally didn’t cause your problem, but will have the power to provide a suitable solution for you, so allow them to do their jobs

4. It may take time for them to resolve your issues, they may need help or advice from a third party, their systems may be slow, so please be patient and understanding

5. They do value you as a customer, they do want to help you, and they do want to leave you happy and satisfied, so please allow them to do that

6. They will thank you at the end of the call, so thank them too and “Make their Day”

So if you want to receive great customer service, you have to give a little to gain a lot.

As the old Bible saying goes “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”

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