Being a customer service (CS) agent’s never been easy. But in the midst of navigating the effects of COVID-19, this crucial role is both in high demand and highly demanding. What’s more, many CS agents are now on the front lines, acting as critical touchpoints between brands and customers.
Fair to say, then, it’s tough to attract and retain agents on a good day. But it’s actually the bad days, with agents overwhelmed by customer needs (and customer frustrations), where the most difference can be made.
Take, for instance, the classic contact center challenge: an angry customer on the phone. All too often, we default to thinking of ways an agent can help a customer in this situation—ways they might defuse the tension, calm them down, and ensure that even the angriest customer hangs up the phone feeling valued.
No wonder there are so many good tips, tricks, and advice available online, all aimed at helping agents improve how the customer feels.
But who’s helping the agents?
More important than asking, this is a question that needs answering. Especially since 43% of customers still prefer to contact customer service via a phone call. This creates an ongoing challenge for today’s CS leaders, as only one in three CS agents is engaged at work. Compared to their peers, disengaged agents have lower first contact resolution (FCR) rates (84% vs. 95%), require customers to repeat information more often (21% vs. 7%), and are 6% less likely to simplify the overall customer experience process. With this, perhaps unsurprisingly, disengaged agents are 84% more likely to quit. But here’s what’s interesting:
Despite the COVID-19 complexities noted above, the pandemic itself isn’t driving this rampant disengagement among customer service agents. Instead, research actually points to failures in CS leadership being the prime suspect.
So, how can leadership do better by their agents when those angry customers are on the phone?
1. Use tech that keeps customers from getting (more) frustrated.
In customer experience, there’s no “good” amount of time to make a customer wait. But the context in which a customer’s been made to wait makes a big difference. And that difference can dramatically improve agent/customer interactions.
Data shows there’s still a threshold (~5 minutes) where customer satisfaction (CSAT) nosedives. And, in these situations, customers get angry. Or, for those who already were angry, angrier. This is why virtual queues and callback servicesmake such a dramatic difference. Both offer customers more control within the waiting process.
Virtual queues, a valuable service to both CX and telephony systems, provide valuable freedom for customers on hold. Think of how frustrating it is to sit and wait on hold. You’re obligated to having your phone on and near, with constant anxiety that you might miss the moment when the agent picks up.
With callback functionality, supervisors can set parameters based on the queue’s status. When the queue reaches a certain wait time threshold, customers are offered a callback in lieu of a traditional hold. Text messaging then reminds customers of their requested callback, keeping abandonment low and reconnect high. This means customers are less likely to miss when agents call (or forget about the callback entirely).
Taken together, supervisors who provide these features give customers more agency in the overall customer experience process. And, in doing so, help set their agents up with happier and less stressed customers.
Related: Master your callback presentation to encourage adoption and smooth out the customer journey.
2. Empower your agents to make the right call during tough calls.
When things get difficult with a customer, it helps when a contact center agent knows who to ask for help. But it’s even better when agents are empowered to make important decisions on their own when dealing with customer complaints.
This is especially true since customers increasingly value solutions over apologies. That, and customer satisfaction drops an estimated 15% every time they have to call back about the same issue. Giving agents increased autonomy can at least keep angry customers on the phone from getting angrier.
Empowerment also plays an important role in keeping agents engaged in their work. But not in the way you may think.
While not limited to the world of customer service, stress is a major contributor to agents disengaging and ultimately leaving their jobs. In fact, among drivers that determined whether to stay or leave their job, agents ranked stress above schedule, ongoing training, breaks, and job benefits.
When you dig into it, this is a pretty logical perspective. During calls with difficult customers, we expect agents to show empathy and maintain a professional, calm tone as they handle the customers’ complaints. Do we expect the same from agents while they’re micromanaged during every second of a phone call? Or, worse yet, expect a disengaged agent to read off a script? (Agents forced to read off scripts while receiving no recognition experience more stress than their peers, and are more likely to leave their jobs.)
On the other hand, we’re in no way suggesting that supervisors should “butt out” of their agent’s work. Quite the contrary. But supervisors should take a hard look at tangibles that lead to more empowered agents.
For instance, highly engaged employees are more likely to feel they can tackle customer issues (3x more when compared to their dissatisfied peers). Knowing this, supervisors can focus on actions that move the employee engagement needle—like the frequency and effectiveness of huddles, the duration of training, and intentional supervision.
3. Intentional supervision: Don’t fall back into bad coaching habits.
Like many verticals post-COVID-19, constant disruption and rapid change are the new normal in customer service. In these environments, a fundamental shift to “leadership as coaching” is proving effective. This means it’s unacceptable to champion traditional (read: outdated) performance coaching methodologies. Think about this:
How many customer calls will your team deal with on the phone today alone? How many customer complaints will they work to resolve by the end of the month?
With the stakes so high and all the detriments of disengagement discussed above, how can we possibly think the traditional approach of annual goal-setting and reviews is still advisable—let alone relevant?
Breaking with the old ways will certainly push some supervisors out of their comfort zones. But now is the time for CS leadership to step up and meet the moment. Especially since evidence clearly shows increased coaching in modern contact centers leads to more sales.
If the agent’s job is dynamic and ever-evolving, then goals and the coaching they receive must do the same. And ongoing goals and coaching should cover both knowledge and well-being support for agents at the individual level, as those constitute the second largest contributor to disengagement. But supervisors often need their own support to make this level of engagement possible (and sustainable).
As able, look at automating administrative tasks to free up time for coaching. Analytics can offer insights into where and how coaching should be directed. And, increasingly, digital tools are augmenting face-to-face teaching.
For agents dealing with angry customers on the phone, one point that gets brought up again and again involves anger being a secondary emotion. Indeed, anger rarely comes from nowhere. There’s always a trigger or cause.
Now, while well-intentioned, this advice for the agent is of limited value. Keeping it in mind can help the agent convey empathy and understanding to an angry person. But in its offering, this advice borders on pandering. “Yes,” it seems to suggest, “this customer isn’t treating you well, but hey, don’t take it personally. Something else is triggering all this!”
This is a problem for leadership to own, not the individual agents. That said, ideally, leadership can help agents keep customers from becoming angry in the first place.
And this is just one of the many potential benefits of callback, or virtual queueing. To discover the others, check out our article: 5 Benefits of Customer Callback.