intelligent customer service

Five techniques from psychology that improve contact centre performance


There are several psychological theories that call centre managers should be au fait with if they are to build a positive environment for their staff and their customers.   

6th Nov 2019

If there’s one thing that employees and managers within the sector can agree on, it’s that working in a contact centre is tough. Arguably, with omnichannel services and a growing expectance on using technology to resolve caller queries more efficiently, it’s getting tougher.

Not so long ago, the BBC’s Alex Hudson described call centres as “the factories of the 21st Century”; while sector employees are constantly dealing with company leaders devaluing the job they do. A growing trend in the UK has seen some businesses allowing prisons to give their inmates jobs in their call centres as part of reintegration programmes. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it does highlight the esteem some business leaders place their contact centres in: as an organisational cost that needs to be contained wherever possible.

Jeff Toister, a leading customer service consultant in the US and author of numerous books, including the recent reedition Getting Service Right: Overcoming the Hidden Obstacles to Outstanding Customer Service believes the negative stigma some businesses create around their contact centres is fundamental to making their organisation look bad. 

He argues that the best call centres are often those that are treated as the hub of a business; the pivotal point in the network by which all customer perceptions, both current and future, are forged. A place where employees are given free-rein to successfully solve customer problems and build a positive brand image; thus giving them a reason to feel motivated.

But how do you create this utopia? Toister suggests an understanding of basic psychology can often be a grounding for success, and highlights five theories that call centre managers should be au fait with if they are to build a positive environment for their staff and their customers.   


The psychological process of ‘priming’ refers to “activating particular representations or associations in memory before carrying out an action or task.” In Layman’s Terms, if you prime yourself to be successful then it will happen. But how does this apply to the contact centre?

“There are many studies suggesting that, as humans, we’re naturally focused on ourselves and our own being,” states Toister.

“So, when you’re in a call centre and you’re taking calls all day and doing contacts and other things, your natural focus is you, and your needs. How am I feeling? Is this person pleasant, or unpleasant? How many calls do I have to get through? It becomes a barrier to thinking about that person who is talking to you on the other end of the phone.

“Priming’s really just a way of changing that outlook by refocusing your thought-process and saying to yourself – ‘I want this person to be happy’ and ‘I want this person to be really happy about the service they received’. When you start thinking in these terms, you look at service very differently. You start to think about your callers’ emotional needs; you might pick up on the fact a customer is irritated by an issue and apologise; you might dig a little deeper to find out, was there anything the customer did that contributed to their issue? Maybe help educate the customer to avoid the problem in the future.

“In terms of applying this theory, it’s really about call centre managers going back to the starting blocks and defining what outstanding service is. Rarely do we do that within our organisations. From there we’re able to prime our employees into delivering this definition. But you can’t just do that and say ‘ok, that’s done, everybody is primed now’ and then move on; the best primers in contact centres talk about service from the customer’s perspective constantly. There’s constant dialogue with their agents and that’s really the most powerful way of priming people – by talking about it.”

Control (Autonomy)

While priming is about establishing a positive mindset throughout the call centre, an understanding of control and autonomy is said to help prevent negativity, and deliver more motivating working environments for employees.

In call centres, autonomy refers to the level of script, pre-defined response and automated referrals employees are expected to action within their core tasks. Studies going back more than ten years have highlighted the effect control and autonomy has on motivation and stress levels in contact centres, and Jeff Toister believes it is a lack of understanding that often forces employers to create a highly autonomous environment:

“A lot of this stems from executives looking at call centres as a ‘cost’ and in business, if it’s an expense, they want to minimise it as much as possible. So they pay low wages, they control the processes to make things simpler and give people less individual though.

“Unfortunately, control correlates directly with demotivation. Employees end up essentially putting notes into their systems that are being placed for other people further down the chain to fix the problem. That’s demotivating to the agent because they’re the one being complained to but they can’t actually fix the problem. So part of the fix there for companies, the really smart companies, is to have a lot of cross-functional work; call centre managers and fulfilment centre managers meeting on a regular basis to compare notes and share feedback so they can streamline the process agents have to actually instantly resolve problems.

“The other fix is simple but it scares call centre managers – give agents the broader guidelines and the autonomy to actually resolve the problem using their best training and instincts. Make it OK to actively discuss problems with the customer and ask what next. The company has to get to grips that this almost always results in better service for the customer and you have better agents; the downside is generally minimal in those situations but you end up with highly motivated staff.”

Dunning Kruger Effect

It’s a relatively new theory, but the Dunning Kruger Effect essentially outlines that the less knowledge or skill we have in a particular area, the more we overestimate our ability. Or ‘the anosognosia of everyday life’, as it has been referred to. In principle, it means those who are at the top of their game are there because they don’t really think they’re at the top of their game; and their motivation to succeed is driven by a will to be better.

It’s a modern, almost capitalist, win-at-all-costs approach, but one that can have a place in customer service as commonly as it has in the mindset of elite sport: “From a cultural standpoint in the contact centre, the Dunning Kruger Effect should sit very closely alongside priming, in terms of how we train and motivate staff, even if it initially seems a little counter-intuitive,” says Jeff Toister.

Priming’s really just a way of changing that outlook by refocusing your thought-process and saying to yourself – ‘I want this person to be really happy about the service they received’. When you start thinking in these terms, you look at service very differently.

“Priming staff to succeed is one thing, but training them to consistently improve is another. An understanding of the core principals of Dunning Kruger actually helps call centre managers to understand their staff more – because they can consistently shift their goals and objectives to counteract any overestimation of ability. It should also help them strive for knowledge, because they should be seeing a desire to improve in employees as a direct achievement in their managerial style. Ultimately, it’s about planning a route for training and self-enhancement in all employees, regardless of the job they do.”

Directed attention fatigue     

Attention deficit is something we’re all becoming attuned with through the rigours of modern society, but attention fatigue is often a problem directly attributed to call centres. Employees are becoming disconnected by the tasks they are being given; all of which is leading to cerebral tiredness:

“It takes conscious effort to focus on a phone call and the various tasks contact centre agents have to complete, but we amplify the need for that effort by giving agents so many opportunities to multi-task,” says Toister.

“The average contact centre agent uses approximately five different software programmes simultaneously; some have 8 or 9 programmes that are required to serve their customers. So, rampant multi-tasking.

“In the contact centre, there is constant attention shifting, but then when they’re given a break, what do they do? They go on their phones, and on Facebook, and then they go home and use the TV. It’s non-stop. As a result, psychologists have found that the number of people suffering from DAF has shot way up in recent years; the symptoms match the symptoms of ADHD – it’s not the same disorder, but the inabilities to focus, the frustration and the fatigue is being found in call centres more and more.”

“Unfortunately, the only known cure is rest! But how does a call centre deliver that? It’s almost impossible. One thing call centres are trialling is ‘break rooms’ and Zen rooms that are deliberately quiet and give employees the opportunity to decompress. It’s a different environment and gets teams off their phones, which is a novel concept that has been found to deliver better results.

“Companies are also starting to understand that agents work better when there’s more simplicity and less multi-tasking. It seems regressive but it’s a proven emotional need that makes the employee perform better in the long-run.”

Selective attention 

The final theory, selective attention, is perhaps the most common issue. From a call centre agent’s perspective it’s a physiological problem only once they’ve worked on a task a number of times; their brains naturally look for familiar patterns to find answers from customer queries, which actually works to their detriment, as instinctively they’re triggered by signs that actually make them stop listening to a customer, and say ‘I know the answer’ and cut them off and jump right in to fix the problem. While this may seem helpful, Jeff Toister believes it actually means potentially missing out on the customers that tell a story that sounds the same but actually ends up being different:

“Experience often works the same way in customer service. We develop a laser focus on what we know while missing new opportunities to serve. Listening to customers is harder than you think. The problem gets amplified for experienced employees.

“Our brain has the amazing ability to make sense of large amounts of data by comparing it to familiar patterns. This pattern recognition ability can also cause problems for experienced customer service employees. If they’ve heard the same story 100 times before, their brain will quickly sense a familiar pattern. Listening stops as their brain instinctively anticipates the rest of the story.

There’s also something called ‘inattentional blindness’; most prevalent occurrences in contact centres is, customers have two types of basic need. One is a rational need to get a problem fixed, but then there’s also an emotional need attached to how they feel about a problem and how they’d like to feel about it.

“We’re not trained, as contact centre agents, to really spend much time on this aspect but the emotional needs are more the most important. Again, from a manager’s perspective, this reverts back to training and priming staff. Make them understand that a problem isn’t just there to be solved the quickest way, it’s there to be analysed. Each problem should be seen as different, and should require a personal response in its approach.”      

This article was originally published in March, 2014. 

Replies (1)

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By LinkedIn Group Member
07th Nov 2019 09:29

This comment posted in the MyCustomer LinkedIn group by member Kyle Southam:

Very true and call centre workers are always under the gun to achieve a higher throughput by metric focussed managers, where all the metrics work against the poor call centre staffer health wise.

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