Response Design Corporation:Creating the Uncommon Call Center
Kathryn's Uncommon Call Center Blog
January 29, 2006 11:19 PM
Categories: Emotion 
Act Nice? But How? (Part 1)

Employees regulate emotions to meet our emotional work requirements. But, how do they do it? Research suggests there are two primary ways employees attempt to "act nice." We will deal with the first (surface acting) in this blog entry and the second (deep acting) in the next.

In surface acting, agents modify and control their emotional expressions without trying to change anything "inside." For example, they may "turn on a smile" (whether face-to-face or over the phone) when in a bad mood or when interacting with a difficult customer. Their mood isn't changed and they don�t feel any differently about the customer - they are simply acting positively in the interaction.

Surface acting may produce a great result in a specific interaction and may be the appropriate solution on a periodic basis, but research suggests that, over time, the agent may be subject to all the effects of emotional dissonance (described in an earlier blog) including:

  1. greater stress,
  2. detachment (not only from one's true feelings but also from other people's feelings), and
  3. less of a feeling of personal accomplishment (if the employee believes that the display was not effective or was met with annoyance by the customer).

So, when employees "fake" their emotional expressions at work, they may distance themselves from customers and (as research indicates) start treating customers as objects. That scary proposition could be the cause of many customer dissatisfying moments!

And, not only might we see a decrease in customer satisfaction; but also a decrease in employee satisfaction due to a feeling of diminished personal accomplishment.

So, how do we help our agents long term? That's the topic of my next blog!

Entry logged at 11:19 PM
January 24, 2006 10:13 PM
Categories: Emotion 
Act Nice!

One study on emotional intelligence suggests that most managers make emotional demands on their workers and require them to exercise a great deal of emotional control. Another study says that managers of customer service workers create the highest level of rules to mandate that their employees exercise a strict control of their emotions. In that same study, the customer service workers confirmed they understood the pressure. They knew their management team expects them to continually control their emotional expression with customers.

We need our employees to act nice (display positive emotions) when interacting with customers. But at what costs are we asking our people to act nice? Is organizational control of emotional displays inherently stressful? Results vary but in some research, employees who were required to hide negative emotions reported more emotional exhaustion, burnout, and other physical symptoms of stress. How do we keep this from spiraling out of control?

I believe one of the best ways to address this dilemma is to manage differently. First, let's acknowledge the stress, communicate with our agents that we know they might want to lash out at times, and tell them we understand the customer is not always right.

Second, say things differently. Look at the following words and consider their impact: hide, control, rules, required. When we use these words, we are starting off in a hole that we will be forever trying to climb out of. Consider words that better communicate the role that positive emotions play in the call center job. It's not about hiding; it is about looking at the situation, the customer, and the self in a different way. It's not about organizational control - it's about self control. It's not rules, it's guidelines for which there will always be exceptions.

Finally, we are responsible for: (1) hiring persons who understand that the display of positive emotion is important albeit, at times, difficult; (2) teaching them various coping skills for dealing with "problem" customers and situations; and (3) educating them on how to better recognize and deal with their internal emotional conflicts. If we do that, then I believe we can lower the level of employee burnout and stress.

Thoughts, anyone?

Entry logged at 10:13 PM
January 22, 2006 09:23 AM
Categories: Emotion 
Emotional Contagion - Why Bother?

Why should we care about the emotional contagion that I defined in a previous blog entry? So what if customers unconsciously "catch" the agent's emotion? All of us remember at least one interaction with a service agent during which we wondered if he or she shouldn't go home and get out on the "right" side of the bed this time. But, did we stop doing business with the company because of that interaction? Probably not.

Research says that customers who are in a more positive emotional state rate the service quality of an organization higher. So, one depressing interaction may not affect a customer's loyalty, but what if he or she experiences multiple "downers?" Each time our agents fail to communicate a positive emotion to the customer, that customer is likely to rate our service quality a little lower. Add all these customer interactions and evaluative judgments together and we are likely to see a lowering of our overall service quality score.

I can't help but think that, over time, this is going to have financial implications.

I figure if we can affect how a customer rates our service quality by training our agents to communicate positively, then it is well worth our effort. Remember, I'm not talking about a simple "smile" reminder. I would like to see quality material that teaches our agents precisely how to express positive emotions through their facial expressions, voices, gestures, and body movements.

I'd be interested to know how many call centers now have this type of curriculum available for their agents. When I was working as a phone agent we most certainly didn't!

Entry logged at 09:23 AM
January 19, 2006 10:32 AM
Categories: Service Process 
Bad News First

Giving the customer "bad news" first and "good news" second is an easy way to improve customer transaction satisfaction. According to research, most people prefer to hear bad news or experience undesirable events early in the interaction; they choose to have the disappointment out of way. If bad news is followed by good news or a good experience, then customers recall the good rather than the bad (hence improving your customer satisfaction scores).

One stumbling block to implementing this "bad news first" order is that those on the front line dread delivering bad news and typically push it off until the very last moment. To overcome this hurdle, management should communicate the effectiveness of the new interaction order and train personnel to effectively communicate both good and bad news.

The "bad news first" idea has concrete implications regarding how agents interact with customers. Imagine that Rob, a banking customer service agent, has been speaking with a customer about a recent transaction. The customer called because she was concerned about the transactional accuracy; during the call, she requests a copy of a check faxed to the number on her record within the hour. When Rob sees the customer record, he learns that, in addition to the transaction problem, the customer has an overdraft charge on her account. Rob considers the impact of the overdraft and the improbability that a fax would reach the customer within the hour. He is not looking forward to giving the customer more "bad news." However, Rob has one ace-in-the-hole: the customer has an e-mail address and he can e-mail a copy of the transaction much faster. Rob first tells the customer about the overdraft (including his recommendations about dealing with it) and then suggests e-mail rather than fax as a way the customer can not only receive the information faster, but also have an electronic copy that she can save on her computer. Rob re-orients the interaction so the customer leaves with a better memory of the event. The customer won't completely forget about the "bad news," but she is likely to feel that the pain wasn't all that bad in the end.

Entry logged at 10:32 AM
January 16, 2006 01:27 PM
Categories: Emotion 
Emotional Leakage

Call center agents are encouraged to create good cheer in customers. We reinforce the importance of their positive emotion by relating how it affects the customer's perception of service quality. We train them and get their agreement to display positive emotions at all times.

But, what if they don't feel positive and what if they don�t attempt to change those feelings through deep acting? Or, is it possible that those other feelings might leak out no matter how hard they try to be positive? Should we consider monitoring for "positive display of emotion" and give the agents feedback each time they display any negative feelings? Do we expect agents to "paint a happy face" at all times and will we hold them accountable for it?

Unfortunately, research in inconclusive concerning emotional leakage. Some research shows that individuals often �leak� their true emotions when attempting to disguise them. The premise is that people are capable of controlling only so much - feelings leak out through behaviors that are less controllable. For example, an agent may say "I'm sorry" in a less-than-convincing voice tone no matter how hard he tries not to. Other research suggests that employee feelings do not "leak out" and affect their displayed emotions. My guess is that the answer varies depending on the situation.

  1. How often do your agents feel they have to mask true emotions? (I would think that the more often they have to mask emotion the harder it becomes.)
  2. How big is the gap between what the agent really feels and what he or she is asked to display? (Wouldn't the bigger the discrepancy between what is felt and what is supposed to be displayed cause more volatility in the situation?)
  3. How prominent are your "display rules" in the minds of your agents? (If the agents perceive you to be extremely focused on the rules, then they will attempt to avoid overtly displaying inner feelings at all costs.

Let's all think through the answers to these questions for our call center. Let's communicate our expectations about displayed emotions to our agents. Next time you listen to a call, see if you can hear inner feelings being expressed inappropriately. If you can, seek out root causes for the failure and devise actions to deal with it.

Entry logged at 01:27 PM
January 12, 2006 12:14 PM
Categories: Emotion 
Emotional Exhaustion

Our call center agents constantly have to manage their emotions and expressions to meet work demands. As I have said before, expression may differ from feeling (agents may feel angry toward a customer but will attempt to modify the expression of anger in order to meet work demands). When the agent feels one thing and displays another it is called "emotional dissonance."

Some research indicates that the more "emotional dissonance" an agent experiences, the more likely that agent is to experience emotional exhaustion.

Although I know how tiring emotional labor can be, I also know it can also be very rewarding. I think this is an incredibly important message for our agents.

One suggestion is to use "heroic" stories to emotionally reward not only those agents who had the experience but also all those who hear it. We get so busy that we often forget to gather and relate those wonderful human-interest details that keep individuals going day after day.

In one of the Response Design facilitate training sessions, we asked participants to write what qualified them to be a customer service hero. We asked them to describe one (or several) situations during which they felt they really helped someone. The event did not have to be a spectacular crisis. Instead, we wanted them to focus on the outcome of the interaction - did both the agent and the customer feel like they had accomplished good. The stories we got were miraculous. Not because they were Pulitzer material or that the events were indeed "heroic." No, it was the effect the recounting had on both the hero and his audience. Both caught the excitement of investing in emotional labor. The other interesting conclusion of the group was that "emotional labor" is really not "labor" at all. It was seen as a higher commitment or "emotional giving."

Entry logged at 12:14 PM
January 9, 2006 09:09 AM
Categories: Emotion 
Service with a Smile? Oh, Please...

I always thought it a little silly that we asked our customer service agents to post a "Smile" sign on their cubicle wall or hang a big mirror to reflect their happy (or grumpy) faces while answering the phone. We cajoled them with constant reminders to "Be sure to smile when answering the phone - the customer will hear it in your voice." I was never quite sure why we were so adamant with what seemed like such a childish admonition.

Well, recently I discovered the "why." According to research there is a positive relationship between the emotion displayed in the service encounter by the agent (whether through facial expression, voice, gesture, or body movements) and the emotion of the customer. Research refers to this as "emotional contagion."

Evidently customers are not aware of the emotional impact the agent is having on them. We all tend to automatically mimic the other person in any interaction because we want to converge emotionally. We literally "catch" our partner's emotion.

Now that I understand "why," I believe we can develop ways to teach and reinforce this desired behavior rather than to simply ask agents to smile. I also understand that there are other critical issues surrounding emotional contagion (e.g., what if the agent doesn't feel positive - won't the "real" emotion leak through even if he or she makes a conscious effort to put a "smile" in the voice?).

I'll deal with some of these issues in future entries (smile!).

Entry logged at 09:09 AM
January 5, 2006 10:19 AM
Customer Experience: Consistent or Variable?

In 1990, a team of researchers (Zeithaml, Pasuraman, Berry) in "Delivering Quality Service: Balancing Customer Perceptions and Expectations" concluded:

"The most important thing a service company can do is be reliable, that is, perform the service dependably and accurately."

These days, each customer contact channel (phone, e-mail, face-to-face, etc.) is evolving rapidly; and typically, each function reports to a different leader. The result is an inconsistent customer experience.

Three factors contribute to an excellent customer experience: technology, people, and process. While all are important, we can take one contributor out of the variation and still have a huge variation problem. Managing incompatible technology, though a big problem, is not as daunting as figuring out how to coordinate customer contact personnel and processes across all channels (especially if we don't want robots interacting with our customers).

For customers to consider us reliable, we must be consistent. For example, if a customer interacts via e-mail, he expects the same treatment (outcome) when interacting on the phone. Or, if a customer reaches one phone agent one day, she expects the same type of treatment from another agent the next.

Giving consistent service starts with consistent service quality standards and processes. In my experience, accomplishing consistency on all fronts is difficult for most organizations to accomplish for five reasons. First, most organizations don't have a documented quality / customer experience strategy. Second, the standards and processes based on the strategy are seldom defined or documented. The third reason involves the difficulty of getting people to agree about what "best practice" is. A complex political battle often ensues when people say, "We've been doing it this way for years now with good results. Obviously 'our' way should be adopted as best practice." Fourth, even after the service strategy, standards, and processes are agreed upon, the organization still has to define appropriate discretionary behaviors when customer situations are not "typical." Finally, to ensure reliability without variation, an organization must pay attention to the supporting performance management issues (e.g., hiring, training, measuring / monitoring, feedback, and reward).

Are you a reliable organization? Do you give your customers a consistent experience across all agents and channels? If not, now's a good time to get the team together to start defining those best practice service standards and processes.

Entry logged at 10:19 AM
January 2, 2006 09:02 AM
Categories: Miscellaneous 
Got Time for Uncommon Call Center Research Ideas?

Welcome to the Uncommon Call Center blog.
I understand that call center management teams are "running around with their hair on fire" and that becoming overwhelmed by too much information is a great possibility. So, each time you visit, you'll find not only a bit of research, but also my opinion about how the research affects us. You'll notice that each blog is short and written in my personal tone - nothing too formal or academic, just a single dose of uncommon common sense. My hope is that it will meet a special need of yours and that you will keep returning. Please let me know if you would like me to research something special for you.

If you ever find yourself thinking, "Gosh, I can't even get to the 'must dos' now ... how am I ever going to address this topic?" I urge you to take a deep breath and focus on the important. I have been "preaching" the tyranny of the urgent for years. This lesson teaches us that the "urgent" often crowds out the "important" in our daily lives. While many things may appear urgent (especially in the call center) there are a limited number of "importants."

So, read these entries and act on some as "important" while tucking the others away as "future."

After all, just like Rome, the call center can't be built in a day.

Entry logged at 09:02 AM
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