Being on the frontline of customer service has never been easy, but the pandemic has made it even more challenging. As a result, we’re seeing more and more agents becoming burnt out and suffering from stress.

It has been over a year since the COVID-19 crisis hit Australia. Back in March 2020 when lockdowns started across the country, we all had to adapt to remote working and a new way of life – fast. At a practical level, businesses moved at lightning speed, setting agents up with all the tech they needed to work effectively and efficiently from home. Within a matter of weeks, working from home had become the new normal and everyone got on with the job. For call centre staff and frontline customer service professionals, working from home and broader impacts of the pandemic brought a host of new challenges. Over the course of 2020 we saw:

1. Big increases in call volumes

With so many people working from home, or out of work, call centres across all sectors experienced increases in call volume. Because customers were at home and had more time on their hands, more of them were calling contact centres about issues that perhaps they wouldn’t normally have. They were also more inclined to follow up sooner when an issue needed time to resolve. This meant that agents were taking more calls each and every day and the pressure increased significantly.

2. More customers struggling with financial stress and vulnerability

On top of the increase in call volumes, a greater percentage of the calls agents were taking were from vulnerable customers and people who had lost their jobs. For many of these customers it was the first time they’d ever experienced vulnerability and they were often emotional, embarrassed and scared. As any agent will tell you, helping vulnerable customers can be very emotionally draining. Not only do these calls take longer, they’re often emotionally charged and require a unique set of soft skills to manage well.

3. Day to day support structures were decimated

While we all embraced online team chats and Friday arvo Zoom drinks, as time progressed, agents became more and more disconnected from their teams. Anyone who has worked in a contact centre will tell you that there is a constant buzz. Agents rely on one another to survive the day. The ability to bounce off a co-worker, get a fast answer to a simple question or take a couple minutes to debrief after a challenging call – this all disappeared when everyone started working from home.

4. The ‘buffer’ between work and life disappeared

With everyone working from home, commuting became a thing of the past. For most of us, this was something to celebrate – all of a sudden we had an extra hour or two in our day. However, for some people the commute provided an important ‘buffer’ between work and home life. Whether you’re in the car or on the train, the commute provided an opportunity to clear the mind and leave work behind, which is very important for our mental wellbeing. But, remote working meant that when the work day was done, an agent would simply take off their headset and move straight into home life. The commute time that provided an important opportunity to decompress and destress was gone, adding to burnout.

Coping with challenges

It didn’t take long for employers across the country to recognise the toll the pandemic was taking on their people. In many organisations, we’ve seen a variety of different programs introduced to help staff cope. While many of these courses focus on health and wellbeing and provide people with tools to help them be more resilient – they’re not providing the core skills and techniques agents need to deal with the new challenges in the moment.

In the contact centre world, ‘soft skills’ have always been important, but on the back of 2020 there is now a dire need to actively help agents build their empathy and resilience skills. CSBA’s General Manger of QA and Training, Narelle Warburton, explains that “constantly speaking to people who are in a vulnerable place takes its toll on an agent. When you consider that in many sectors the number of calls from vulnerable customers has increased three-fold, you can understand why we’re seeing more and more agents suffering from empathy burnout”.

Developing empathy and resilience

Narelle went on to explain that for agents “there is a big difference between empathy and sympathy. Agents who are too sympathetic end up taking on board all the stress that is being shared with them day in day out, which takes its toll on their emotional wellbeing. By 2021, we are seeing more and more organisations struggling with these issues. We worked closely with our clients to understand what was happening on the frontline and designed a training course specifically to help agents develop their empathy and resilience skills”.

CSBA’s training program, Empathy and Resilience on the Front Line of Customer Service, focuses on providing agents with a variety of skills that are needed to cope with the ‘new normal’, including:

  • Being empathetic, rather than sympathetic – recognising the needs of the customer without getting too emotionally invested
  • Bounce back techniques, which allow agents to ‘bounce back’ after a difficult interaction, process their own emotions, and move on
  • Self-monitoring techniques, allowing agents to better identify and manage their own emotional triggers and in turn allowing them to better manage their customer’s experience
  • Stress management tools that help agents recognise how different interactions have impacted them and how to let go at the end of the day.

Together with LGPro, CSBA hosted the Empathy and Resilience training program via a virtual seminar series. The first event proved so popular that it was run several times. “We received some great feedback from participants. 98% of participants rated the program Excellent or Very Good, which resulted in an NPS of +54”, says Narelle. “But for me, the most important feedback came through the comments from participants, which really shows the course has had a positive impact”.

Testimonials from the Empathy and Resilience Course

I think I have a better awareness now of types of behaviour to look out for when helping a customer to avoid conflict or having a bad situation escalate. I've also learnt some techniques for protecting myself when needed.”

“It’s important to change some of the language we use that can have an unintended meaning for others.”

“I’ll look at the phrases I use when interacting with people and start with what I can do, not what I can't.”

“The sessions were engaging, insightful and affirming. It was great that they provided the opportunity for a diverse group to actively participate and share their experiences"

Looking to the future

If there is one thing that we know for sure, it’s that the world will never be the same again. Remote working looks like it will continue long into the future and the vulnerability crisis is here to stay. Helping your agents cope with the ‘new normal’ by equipping them with the skills needed to manage themselves and their customers makes good business sense. Failing to do this is likely to result in more and more staff burnout, health and wellbeing issues and increased absenteeism.

For more information about CSBA’s Frontline Agent Empathy and Resilience Training program, please contact your CSBA Account Manager or our General Manager of QA and Training, Narelle Warburton on 03 9650 4900 or email narelle.warburton@csba.com.au.

Want to explore how CSBA can help you provide your customers with better experiences?

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