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Empathetically speaking: Could call centres learn from the NHS approach to service?

14th Jul 2015
Editor MyCustomer
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If you believe the hyperbole, UK call centres are struggling under the weight of customer expectation. 

It’s hard to find a new piece of research that paints current response rates and satisfaction levels of call centres in a positive light. A recent study from Mattersight, for instance, revealed that consumers are becoming increasingly irritated by the effort it takes most call centres to solve any support queries.  

And according to ContactBabel, long telephone queues are costing UK businesses an estimated £3.7 billion a year, as Brits become increasingly impatient in the process of waiting for a problem to be resolved. Indeed, 75% of consumers surveyed in Mattersight’s research said they felt frustrated after talking with customer service representatives in call centres, even if their problem was eventually solved.

In some respects, call centre reps can’t win. The number of channels support services are expected to cover is on the rise globally, making roles more and more complex. Yet 44% can’t understand why call centres don’t “make it easier to get the help they need”. The general consensus is other approaches need to be considered to reverse the rising tide of resentment.

Empathy focus

The industry has known this for some time. In a 2013 research report from the CCA, leading call centre managers stated that an independent mindset, motivated self-starting, problem-solving abilities and – crucially – empathy are now the key traits required from modern day contact centre agents.

With 95% of consumers stating contact centres fall short in providing first contact resolutions across various channels, it may be that empathy stands out as the trait most suitable to combat the frustration building up among UK consumers.

In this respect, the private sector could do worse than assess the approach taken by some quarters of the public sector, especially in the NHS, where empathy is the key component of any practice deemed as ‘customer service’.

The Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS) is one function that is of particular interest. In the early 2000s, the NHS introduced PALS across healthcare organisations, as a frontline function to resolve patient concerns before they escalated into complaints.  

Despite being built around a private sector vision of customer service, academics at Kingston Business School conducted research with PALS in 2014 to find a distinctly different view of customer care among employees:

  • Workers were not content with being ‘just’ customer service workers. Their jobs involve significant emotion work and the sorts of issues they deal with go above and beyond the concept of customer service. For example, one PALS worker explains that, “this isn’t just about process, this about actually engaging with people. Talking to them, talking about their worries, their concerns, and things like that”.
  • The term ‘customer service’ was generally seen to be misleading. While customer service workers in other industries resolve issues by replacing faulty goods or offering refunds, customer service workers in healthcare deal with ill patients and their loved ones. A PALS employee stressed that, “the ‘customers’ that we have are not the general customers that they [want to] put under the same umbrella”.
  • PALS workers are dissatisfied with service-like job titles. Which erroneously only allude to the processes involved, and ignore the significant emotional component of their role.

While it may be crass to suggest a PALS worker’s approach can simply be replicated in private sector call centres, the premise of having a more emotional, empathetic relationship with customers when trying to resolve queries is one that resonates with the increasing complexity of support queries flowing through UK call centres.

Dr Lilith Arevshatian, a Human Resource Management (HRM) leader in the Department of Management, and the lead in Kingston Business School’s research with PALS, believes the overall philosophy and purpose of a call centre has to change in order for it to become truly ‘empathetic’:

“With the NHS, a call will come through that has to be resolved there and then, one way or another, so it’s far more critical for employees. However, certainly in the private sector, whilst that is obviously the main driver as well, cost efficiency is often deemed far more important and getting someone off a phone line can also be just as important.

“So if the private sector could take something from the public sector it is probably this idea that empathy and emotion more of a role in trying to get someone's problem resolved rather than just trying to get them in and out of the call centre as quickly as possible.”


Legal & General is one private sector firm that has already heeded this call. In 2014, the financial services provider decided it would put its entire customer service staff through an empathy and engagement training programme.

The programme, named Customer Experience Matters, is designed in partnership with learning solutions provider Hemsley Fraser to help staff enhance their interaction skills. Topics such as building rapport, listening and questioning, managing the conversation and understanding and acknowledging what matters most to the customer are all covered.

"Customers are often emotionally-charged when they contact an insurance company and it can be extremely frustrating for them if the person they’re talking to responds robotically and doesn’t understand or empathise with how they're feeling,” says Joanne Hardy, L&D manager for Legal & General's insurance customer service division.

“We've always tried to see things from the customer's perspective. This programme builds on that and highlights why it's so important to create an emotional connection with every customer. It reinforces how our staff can apply the right mindset and develop the behavioural skills that will make a difference."

Super agents

Dr. Nicola Millard, head of customer insight and futures at BT, has long studied the evolution of contact centres, witnessing a number of major shifts in philosophy and process among UK call centres since the mid-90s.

However, Millard suggests the current changes are the most rapid, and that other call centres will have no choice but to follow the same path as Legal & General in developing the emotive, empathetic, relationship-building skills of their staff.   

In BT’s most recent study into the subject, it found two concurrent trends emerging of customers becoming more ‘autonomous’ in their problems-solving support queries, alongside call centres were experiencing more and more complex problem solving as their first line of contact with a customer.

The upshot is that the skillset of the contact centre employee has already and will continue to evolve. Millard champions the terms ‘relationship hub’ to describe the contact centre of the future, with highly-skilled, highly-motivated and emotive relationship builders as employees – or ‘Super Agents’ – another term Millard champions.    

“If there’s a shift to complexity, who on earth do we employ in these centres? Is it the lowest paid, least empowered, least well-trained people in the entire company? Probably not.

“If we look at the kind of powers advisers already need in contact centres, it’s already a pretty remarkable set of skills they need; not least the fact that they need to handle this very high level of cognitive load.

“This is a high-skilled job already. [Agents] need to be really, really good communicators…they also need to understand their product, their service, their particular area very well…but sure they need empathy, sure they need resilience.”


The good news, however, is that if call centres are able to establish this new line of thinking towards staff and their skillsets in the near future, they may end up with an increase in employee motivation as a result.

In Kingston Business School’s research of the NHS PALS team, a unit that relies on the enhanced empathy and emotive sensitivity of its staff, this exact trait shone through above others.     

“One of the key findings that came from the second phase of the data collection was just how much employees actually believed in the NHS and they believed in what they were doing and they loved what they were doing because there was great motivation, great commitment, great vocational call towards the job itself,” Dr. Arevshatian explains.

“I think it was quite evident in the data that one of the key motivational drivers for employees was just helping people and resolving issues, and knowing they were genuine in trying to help.

“Sometimes we get quite caught up in looking at private sector models and saying, especially now with cost savings so prominent in the public sector, that that’s the route to follow. But I think there's also quite a lot of room to look at what the public sector does really well and you know one of the things that they do really well is deliver critical service with real heart, real empathy.”

With all the research pointing towards building better relationships between customer and support agent becoming more and more critical to success, it may be that other private sector call centres have no alternative but to look at how organisations like the NHS approach the concept of empathy in customer service.  

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