The amount of control a call center agent has is directly proportional to the outcome. More control usually results in a positive response and less emotional stress. However, less control usually renders a call center agent ineffectual and stressed out. Minimizing call center stress begins with rational thoughts about what is within an agent's sphere of control. Since call center agents can not control the weather, traffic, equipment failure or a customer's behavior, then the focus must be emphasized on things which are within the call center agent's sphere of control.
The single, most significant and proactive stress-minimizing tactic is the Split Second Response (SSR), which begins with a pause. In the absence of this pause, call center agents often say or do something they might regret later. The pause enables a call center agent to size up a situation and consider what service options might work best. Along with the pause, a call center agent should take a deep breath and think rationally about what to do or say next. Both the pause and a deep breath will enhance rational thinking. While this sounds basic, rational thinking is a vital element in a constructive response.
Perhaps the best reason for not getting stressed out lies in the benefits gained by not becoming angry. I have found that agents who avert anger stay more productive and convey a more positive vocal image than agents who allow themselves to lose their cool. I have an anecdote called the "bucket" story, which I use in my call center, as a reminder to my agents -- should they become angry. It goes like this:
As a call center agent, you might speak with scores of customers on a typical work day. Most are pleasant and a few can be difficult, but you tolerate it. A single demanding customer does not push you over the edge however, each event is cumulative, like a drop of water. They become annoying and bothersome. One customer blames you for damage resulting from a rough freight carrier. Another is frustrated about your service policy. Still another customer keeps reciting the same complaint over and over again. Each phone call is like that drop of water in a bucket. Drip. Drip. Drip.
If you experience enough of these incidents, you will eventually have a bucket full of anger. The next challenging customer just might be the one who pushes your anger button and -- SPLASH! The bucket spills over, resulting in an emotional torrent. Now you are seeking revenge!
There is no place for anger in a call center. Anger might seem appropriate as a way to even the score against a difficult customer. Yet, once you are able to compose yourself, you realize that you were in the wrong. But, by then, it is too late. You can not take back angry words that were hurled like darts at your customer.
For an untrained or inexperienced call center agent, anger and revenge fuel each other in a perpetual and escalating cycle. It is best to never get there in the first place. Emotional containment is an advantageous starting point. Investing a moment or two in rational thought will spare you much angst and quite possibly save your company money by preventing a loss in productivity.
A call center agent must take responsibility for his feelings. Customers do not make an agent angry. Nor can customers make an agent do or feel anything. An agent chooses to become angry as a result of what someone else does. Agents should strive to modify their own behavior since they can not change that of the customer. It is best to stop placing blame on others for your circumstances and, instead, take personal responsibility for your feelings. If there are problems to resolve, be proactive and fix them. Do not fix the blame.
The fight or flight response manifests itself in interesting ways in call centers. While fighting with or fleeing from customers is not a responsible action for agents to take, the inability of an agent to cope with unpleasant circumstances might lead to psychological attempts to do so. Psychological flight manifests itself as apathy or discourteous behavior. This type of conduct creates distance between an agent and their customer and is contrary to the practice of building closer relationships through empathy and genuine concern. Psychological fight might be exhibited as aggressive or retaliatory behavior, which is unacceptable in an industry where it is essential to use restraint rather than retaliation. Psychological fight manifests itself as snippy remarks, a loud sigh, curt or terse comments and a negative tone of voice.
A meaningful event stands out in my life when I recall how I consciously started thinking rationally about anger and its affects on me. Late one afternoon I handled a telephone call from a very difficult customer. It was the last call of my work day and I left the office angry and frustrated. I kept replaying the situation in my head while driving home after work. I had blamed that customer for ruining my night. I was barely paying attention to my driving when I reached a sharp curve in the road. I lost control of my car but, fortunately, avoided a crash. The car spun 360 degrees twice before coming to a screeching halt.
As I sat staring at the dashboard, I knew I was wrong for allowing myself to become so angry that I began to think irrationally. The expression "circumstances don't make a man, they reveal him" certainly rang true to me that evening. I had been exposed as a man who did not properly handle adversity.
The events of that night changed the way I respond to anger and stress. The memory of that night reminds me that I have a choice. These days, I choose to suspend my anger and thereby diminish my stress. Likewise, agents will be rewarded for learning how to suspend their anger.