Response Design Corporation:Creating the Uncommon Call Center
Kathryn's Uncommon Call Center Blog
February 23, 2006 11:11 PM
Still Buzzing Around?

In the last blog entry we talked about how busyness affects our call center employees.

Well, the research doesn't end there. Customers are able to perceive when we are busy through the time they have to wait in queue or the short answers that they receive. All else being equal, when they perceive busyness, they evaluate the service level lower than when agents have all the time in the world to serve them.

I have good news. Research shows the effect of busyness on customers' evaluations of service quality can be partially mediated by the display of positive emotion by the agents. Agents can change the perception of the customer by being positive.

Even if customers reach agents "fit to be tied" because they had to wait too long, the agents can use empathy and defusing anger skills to address the situation. They can use the "positive emotion" skill you will be teaching them to effectively control their facial expression, voice, gesture, or body movement to improve the customer's impression of service quality.

I've heard it said a thousand times, "It's not the event that makes the customer go away angry, it is how we handle it." Looks like research is giving us plenty of ways to handle it!

February 18, 2006 11:09 PM
Busy as a Bee?

Did you know that research shows a negative relationship between how busy an agent / call center is at the time of the customer interaction and the agent's ability to display positive emotions?

Okay, everyone managing a busy call center and busy agents - raise your right hand. Hmm, I thought so. Most every call center professional I know falls into that category. So what does this mean and what can we do?

I believe a call center environment can be busy without being chaotic. I believe an agent can be busy without being negative. I believe that most of this purposeful busyness is a result of good management.

Consider two different agents working in two different call centers. Both are extremely busy - looking at a customer queue of more than 50 calls. The first agent has been taught that their responsibility is to develop the customer relationship and, if necessary, invest in customer retention activity. There are no blinking red lights on her phone, no supervisors running around telling people about the queue emergency, and no reason for the agent to do anything but ensure a quality, cost-effective interaction with her current customer.

The second agent is bombarded by red and yellow sirens warning of impending doom. He has a supervisor leaning over his shoulder questioning why the call is taking so long. "Sure," the supervisor says, "we're supposed to satisfy the customer but we are in an unusual situation right now. We have to make some adjustments to our standard procedure or else our statistics will not reflect what we want them to."

Which agent is more likely to communicate positively to the customer?

There's no magic. It's all about good management. Not one of us can eradicate the busyness but we can help control the chaos by communicating clear expectations to our agents and managing to those expectations. When an agent works in a well-managed busy environment he or she will be more likely to communicate positively to the customer.

February 5, 2006 11:23 PM
Act Nice? But How? (Part 2)

"Deep acting" is the process of controlling internal thoughts and feelings to meet the display rules mandated by management. In deep acting exercises, agents learn that when they become angry with difficult customers, they need to counteract their anger by envisioning the interaction from the customers' point of view.

The reason deep acting work is so appealing is that research says that employees who engage in it experience more feelings of personal accomplishment. Therefore, researchers recognize deep acting as beneficial for both employees and customers. However, here is my warning. Researchers are afraid that all this talk about feelings and their regulation might motivate organizations to treat employees' feelings as a commodity (something it can control to benefit the bottom line).

Research on mood regulation suggests training employees to engage in deep acting techniques. If, indeed, "jobs are not as easily molded as are people," then training agents how to deep act may be an effective means for employees to adjust to their work situations. Giving your agents the ability to act positively no matter what they feel is intriguing and practically useful thought for call center managers.

Have you implemented emotion regulation and deep acting training for agents in your call center? We would love to hear from you if you have found a program that is effective.

January 29, 2006 11:19 PM
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!

January 24, 2006 10:13 PM
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?

January 22, 2006 09:23 AM
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!

January 16, 2006 01:27 PM
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.

January 12, 2006 12:14 PM
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."

January 9, 2006 09:09 AM
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!).

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