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Stress In The Contact Center

by Dick Bucci, Principal, Pelorus Associates - January 9, 2018

Stress in the Contact Center
Annette has worked as a customer service representative for a web-based auto insurance company. With no local offices the role of the CSR is multi-faceted. She processes applications, handles claims, answers myriad calls and messages, follows up on delinquent payments, and uses her sales skills to encourage renewals.  Her quality scores are consistently good, and her renewal rate is among the highest on the team.  On Monday she stops by the director’s office and tells him that Friday will be her last day.   Her director asks why she is leaving and she simply replies that "I found a better job."    The director is disappointed but not surprised. After all, this is the call center business. 
For years experts in the contact world have predicted that contact center agents would decline in numbers as their jobs are read placement technology. This is not happened. Replaced by technology.  In fact, employment of CSR's continues to grow.  Progressive businesses understand that highly skilled customer service representatives solve customer problems and serve as valuable brand ambassadors. 
Causes of stress
When Annette explain she was leaving for a better opportunity elsewhere her supervisor never bothered to ask why she was looking for a new job in the first place. If he had, he might have been surprised with the answer. It is rarely about more money. That ranks well down the list of reasons for quitting call center work.   In fact, Annette’s problem was that she was just exhausted hearing other people’s complaints and feeling constantly under the gun to handle more calls and improve performance.   Research conducted by ICMI showed that the leading causes of agent turnover were fast work pace, dealing with complaints and problems, and a sense of powerlessness.  In fast-paced industries agents are overwhelmed with rapid changes in products, prices, and policies.  Responsibilities have grown much faster than paychecks.     The easy questions and problems are handled by self-service, leaving agents to wrestle with the tough ones.
Reducing stress in the contact center
While some stress is inherent in contact center work there are measures that management can take to reduce stress and make the agent’s job more pleasant.
1. Take a fresh look at quality management
A typical call center supervisor or quality specialist may review five calls per agent per month. That same agent may very well have handled over 1000 interactions during that same period.  The specific calls selected may be aberrational or mundane.  Agents know this and may feel the process is inherently unfair.  Other stressors associated with quality management are inconsistencies in ratings of soft skills and even perceived bias on the part of some supervisors.   
Positive steps that can be taken are:
·         Soliciting input from agents on how the quality form should be constructed. 
·         Select calls for review based on clear and pertinent criteria.
·         Using speech analytics to monitor calls in real time to check for compliance and courtesy
·         Adjust the frequency of evaluations based on tenure and past performance. 
·         Conduct calibration sessions to help reduce soft skill rating inconsistencies.
·         Experiment with self evaluations and peer evaluations.
2. Empower agents
Agents become frustrated when they must tell callers that supervisor approval is required to make even a modest concession. This inability to solve a problem on the spot negatively impacts first call resolution.  Extending more authority may lead to some mistakes but the larger benefit is that problems get solved faster and agents are more satisfied with their jobs and therefore less inclined to look for new opportunities.  Additionally, concessions can be an important marketing tool.  Some high-end hotels empower agents to grant up to $1000 of perks and benefits to highly valued customers to maintain the customer satisfaction and loyalty.
3. Measure metrics that matter
There are more than 100 metrics used to evaluate the performance of contact centers and its employees.  Only two have been demonstrated to have a direct relationship to customer satisfaction; first call resolution and agent satisfaction.   Contact centers need to periodically evaluate the metrics they use for evaluating individual and overall performance.  Approach this by asking if the metric satisfies three simple criteria. 
·         Does it measure something that directly impacts achievement of the enterprise objectives? 
·         Does it measure something the individual can reasonably control? 
·         Are we confident that the metric is accurate and objective? 
4.  Get creative
Creative managers will find opportunities for their teams to relax and perhaps blow off some steam.  Examples are casual Fridays, performance awards, and celebrations of important events.  Gamification software, where individuals earn awards for accomplishments and learning new skills, is becoming more widely deployed within contact centers.  
5. Job rotation
In addition to fun and games, a useful approach is to provide more variety in the agent’s work.  Why not rotate agents in and out of other jobs, particularly back-office operations?  In a growing number of businesses and organizations certain back office functions are viewed as extensions of the contact center.  Rotating people through these jobs adds variety to their daily routines and equips them with skills and contacts that can help open doors to other positions within the organization. 
 More than perhaps any other class of employees within the enterprise, agents are subjected to almost continuous stress.  Punctuality, break times, and lunch breaks are tightly monitored. Productivity and performance are constantly compared to others.  Dealing with unhappy and sometimes abusive callers is a daily occurrence.   Reducing agent attrition is an important goal of virtually every contact center.   Stress on the job is by no means the only reason for high attrition rates but unlike raising pay scales or improving advancement opportunities, it is one causal factor that contact center management can deal with.  
Dick Bucci
Pelorus Associates

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