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Good Call Center Training Alleviates Agent Stress


TMCnews Featured Article

May 26, 2006

Good Call Center Training Alleviates Agent Stress

By Stefania Viscusi, Assignment Desk Editor

It's happened to all of us at least once. You call a contact center, wait in queue for what seems like hours, or connect with an agent who isn't speaking clearly and doesn't seem to  be able to help. Before you know it, you're upset and speaking in a tone not normally your demeanor. When you get off the phone or read all the reports of call center agents suffering from abuse, you can't help but wonder if maybe you’ve done your part to add to their unhealthy state. But how much of your angered tone is really "abuse"?
To better define call center agent "abuse" and highlight possible solutions, TMCnet spoke exclusively with Dina Vance, Senior Vice President at Ulysses Learning a provider of call center training solutions.
As Vance explained, there is indeed a difference between a caller that is being "abusive" and one that is just emotional and reacting on their heightened emotions. It is important to make this distinction before labeling a call as abusive and unacceptable.
An emotional caller is one who is upset about something and may be raising their tone of voice to display that heightened emotion. When there is inappropriate language, name calling and personal attacks involved, then a call has become abusive. With the proper call center training, agents can learn how to handle these calls before it's too late.
Vance said, "Agents handle an average of 110 calls a day, and 80 percent of the calls that come in have some level of emotion. Usually a caller is calling in because they're frustrated, angry, upset, concerned—something has happened and they're not happy."
Therefore, it is crucial that agents and especially the call center manager note these occurrences and become better prepared and informed on handling them for the sake of their workers and their callers. In these situations the task should become how to handle this type of emotional call rather than instantly labeling it "abusive" and not acceptable.
Lately, the amount of call center outsourcing to countries where language and cultural boundaries exist appears to have brought forth a higher incidence of abusive/emotional calls.
Vance explained that frustration with language barriers is a focus right now in the industry as a whole.
"American customers have become intolerant of phoning into a call center and talking to someone who does not speak clearly or is not understandable. It's frustrating because they have to repeat themselves, ask clarifying questions and spend more time on the telephone than they anticipated. It's equally frustrating to the associate on the other end because often times they just simply don’t understand the emotional component of the call or that American culture typically moves quickly. Mostly, they don’t understand why they're not being understood."
In India, for example, patience is an aspect of respect. In contrast, getting things done fast is a top priority for most Americans. Waiting for answers while on hold or speaking with someone who can't immediately help them, only infuses the American caller, turning a call into an emotional one, when it wasn’t at the onset.
To better prepare agents for this type of environment and the stress it causes, it’s important that they understand the job of a call center agent from the start. Having them listen to and observe calls or sit side by side with agents in the center are all good ways of allowing them to see what the job entails.
It is important to remember as well, that a call center agent’s job is a tough one. In addition to handling large call volumes and being product/service experts, agents are also being recorded, monitored and measured. It’s a stressful job to begin with.   
"Layer onto that, the fact that customers aren’t always pleasant to deal with and you can lose the agent...they can burn out. That’s why our industry continues to suffer with such high turnover rates."
“We must give agents the right tools and strategies to deal with these kinds of callers and provide agents with consistent feedback and coaching to help eliminate burnout.
"Often we expect agents to do their jobs in a vacuum with very little personal contact around coaching and feedback or being reinforced as well as redirected when needed" commented Vance.
"When we've been able to give employees a strategy and show them how to take control of the conversation by demonstrating competency and confidence, which lets them see first hand the impact of reducing the emotional piece, it has significantly reduced turnover.”
Vance says most of the organizations that she’s worked with experience improvements in turnover from 39 percent to 28 percent in a 6-month period -- just by giving agents a strategy that helps them not take emotional calls so personally.
Traditional customer service training teaches agents how to follow a specific conversation model from point A to point B based on a phone call that is very narrow-- no conversations are that literal. Training agents in an environment they feel safe in, away from the actual customers, eliminates the stress and emotional piece for both the agent and the caller.
Ulysses Learning specifically applies training solutions that help reduce the stress from these types of calls. Their simulation-based e-Learning approach develops agents by having them learn, apply and practice their call handling skills in a safe, life-like simulated environment that not just tells them how to handle and react to calls.   
"We have a very prescriptive coaching process that allows your coaches to give "just-in- time" pivotal behavioral feedback."
"Together you have to focus on not just the associates, but the coaches as well and work with both so that together a winning environment is created. Centers that have achieved this balance have shown significant reductions in turnover and escalated calls, as well as increases in one call resolution," said Vance.
When it comes to call center agents suffering from the stress of "abusive" calls, providing them with a proper strategy for handling calls before they become abusive is imperative.
There are three key steps, as Vance highlights, that should be taken:
1. Acknowledge the Emotion
 Listen to the caller and acknowledge that something has happened to make them emotional. Acknowledge it and move on to the next step before it escalates to an abusive call.
2. Take Control of the Call
Strong words choices will immediately diffuse the emotional aspect of the call. By using strong "I can" statements and proper word choices such as "Absolutely, I would be glad to help you with …", "I can look that information up for you” instead of emphasizing the "you" in statements like, "can you tell me what happened?"--where the customer immediately feels like they're speaking with the wrong person—after all they wouldn’t be calling if they knew what was wrong.
3. Transition into the Problem Solving Path
Finally, to get the caller out of their emotional state, transition them into a problem solving path. Once they have had a chance to get through the emotional part, move on so their issues can be resolved.
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Stefania Viscusi is an established writer and avid reader. To see more of her articles, please visit Stefania Viscusi’s columnist page.

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