By: Kristin Robertson, KR Consulting Inc.
Vincent Van Gogh once said, “Let us not forget that the little emotions are the great captains of our lives and we obey them without realizing it.” Surely Van Gogh was driven by his emotions to create bold, beautiful paintings. In his personal life, his emotions tormented him, driving him to aberrant behaviors such as cutting off his ear in a fit of pique.
We also are at the mercy of our emotions in the support center, largely due to the stressful circumstances inherent in providing customer service. Interestingly, recent scientific research has identified the four most stressful situations, all of which are commonly found in support centers. The four major stressors to a human being are:
- Lack of control
- Lack of information.*
Let us look at each of these stressors in the context of the support center and apply our understanding of emotional intelligence to offer some suggestions for dealing with these significant stressors. In this article, we will deal with just the first two stressors. Look for next month’s article for information on the last two!
Uncertainty is common in the support center. We are never sure who the next caller is, what that person is calling about, and what mood the caller is in. It is also stressful when we are not sure of the answer to a question or problem that the customer poses. My colleague Ray Marchand of RADAR Solutions Group often says that employees do not come to work to fail, and uncertainty about what answer to give the customer is a sure road to failure. This is a major cause of burnout and attrition in the support center, and needs to be recognized and addressed.
Here are some ways to reduce uncertainty in the support center:
- Get involved in change control or the product development process. With support center representation, change control boards will make better decisions and the support center will proactively know about changes that affect it.
- Ensure that internal support groups educate the frontline analysts on a regular basis. Some support centers meet weekly with their support groups (including second level analysts within the support center, if applicable) to review escalated tickets and pass on information that will help resolve the call at first level next time. This reduces uncertainty for the frontline analysts.
- Reduce uncertainty around schedules by assigning regular work schedules for each analyst. Provide a lot of forewarning for unusual requests such as schedule changes, mandatory overtime, vacations blackout times, etc.
- Although it is difficult to do anything about the uncertainty of the next call, advanced support center technologies can provide information about the nature of the support request in advance. Some support groups purchase and implement screen pop on their phone systems, so the analysts know who is calling as they answer the phone. Other support centers encourage email or web-based case entry, which allows the analysts to review the case and the customer’s history before responding, either by phone or by email. Both of these technologies reduce the uncertainty of the next customer request.
Potential for conflict is rampant in the support center. It is rare that a customer calls us to congratulate us on the great job we have done – unfortunately, most calls are about problems the customers experience. Problems have a tendency to make customers uncomfortable at best, and sometime even angry. Conflict often ensues because the customer may vent their anger or frustration at the support analyst. Conflict is often the result of not being able to resolve an issue for the customer. In addition, conflict is possible between the support center and internal support groups such as product development or network operations and even between individuals within the support center itself.
In dealing with conflict with the customer, the emotionally competent support analyst will use many of the customer service skills often discussed in these articles, such as:
- Listening with an open mind and curiosity. This approach to listening helps you to understand the true meaning or feeling that lies beneath what the customer is saying. Perhaps the customer is appearing to be angry at the support center, but actually is frightened about how she will look to her boss.
- Empathy, which acknowledges the emotion of the customer and creates instant rapport with the customer. A show of empathy might sound like, “I can see how frustrated you are, and I would be frustrated, too.” Sincerity in the tone of voice will make or break an empathy statement.
- Apologies are sometimes helpful in reducing conflict. A good rule of thumb is if anyone in your organization has inconvenienced a customer, an apology is due. Apologies do not need to assume blame, but can be another way of acknowledging the emotions of the customer, as in “I’m sorry you are so frustrated with us. Please let me help you with this problem.”
Emotionally mature support analysts will recognize the stress of dealing with conflict and will care for themselves immediately following a stressful interaction with a customer or co-worker. When we are stressed, our brain sends signals to the rest of our bodies to produce stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause our heart to beat more rapidly, divert blood from the internal organs to the arms and legs so we can run or fight, and otherwise put our bodies on high alert. The worst thing to do is to take another call while in this state of high alert – we are likely to over-react to the next customer due to the residue of upset that our bodies are still feeling. Much better is to log off the phone and go for a brisk walk – at least to the restroom or break room, or better yet, around the building – to burn off some of those stress hormones and chemicals from the emotional or stressful situation. A wise support manager will encourage his team to do so, knowing that the analyst will be better able to deal with customers and the job when they return.
Internal conflict can be prevented by proactively building relationships within the support center and with other support groups within your organization, such as product development. Social activities such as serving occasional lunches in the support center for others or “Last Friday of the Month” socials that allow employees to mingle with their colleagues in other departments help build relationships. Proactively informing other groups of situations in the support center, such as problem analysis or a spike in certain calls, can go a long way in building mutually respectful relationships.
Stress and the Emotionally Intelligent Support Center
We know that emotional intelligence contributes to an individual’s career success more than his technical knowledge. We can also use these concepts to help us manage stress more effectively. Uncertainty and conflict are common situations in the support center, but with awareness of our own emotions and the emotions of our customers and co-workers, we can manage these situations to positive outcomes.
Please stay tuned for next month’s concluding article on the four major stressors in a support center!
* E.R. De Kloet, “Corticosteroids, Stress, and Aging,” Annals of New York Academy of Sciences, 663, (1992), 358.
Kristin Robertson, President of KR Consulting, Inc., is a consultant and trainer to the Help Desk and Technical Support profession. She helps companies increase the efficiency of their support center, save money, and increase their customer loyalty. She has worked with companies such as AIG, 7-Eleven, Southwest Airlines, Hewlett Packard, SBC Internet Services and Medtronic.