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Loneliness epidemic hits customer service and contact centres

How customer service teams can help tackle the loneliness epidemic in 2022

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It's been predicted that up to 75% of all customer service calls will be made out of loneliness by 2026. What can organisations do to ensure they're combatting this challenge in a sincere and effective manner?

10th Jan 2022
Editor MyCustomer
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In a global Statista study conducted in November 2021, it was revealed that roughly a third of all adults experience feelings of loneliness in their day to day lives.

Driven by the perfect storm of aging populations, the decline of communities, the rise of digital and the coronavirus pandemic, loneliness has become a topic high on the global agenda as the effects are so stark: loneliness is scientifically proven to increase mortality, drive cognitive deterioration and negatively impact all manner of behavioural, psychological and physiological conditions.     

Pressure on contact centres

According to Gartner, the effects of the loneliness epidemic are set to be felt acutely by customer service teams too – especially in contact centres. It predicts that by 2026, 75% of customers who call customer service and support will do so out of loneliness, not because they have a customer service issue.

At first glance this prediction may appear eye-wateringly high, but as Ann-Marie Forsyth, chief executive of the Customer Contact Association (CCA) states, the industry is already experiencing challenges relating both directly and indirectly to loneliness. 

“Since March 2020, the CCA has been tracking data from leading private and public brands in the UK with millions of customers. Call volumes have increased significantly, across all sectors. There has also been a significant acceleration in digital and automation uptake by customers, but many continue to struggle with the complexity.

“The degree to which loneliness is driving calls is interesting because it is certainly connected. Just about every brand in the CCA network has reported a significant increase in the degree of complexity of calls. At times callers are presenting a need to chat and there have been instances where callers are suicidal. Calls are statistically proving to be much longer, preventing a real challenge to organisations struggling to recruit experienced workers, also leading to frustration and pent up anger by customers who are forced to wait for longer periods than usual.”

By 2026, 75% of customers who call customer service and support will do so out of loneliness

Given these challenges, can organisations do more to tackle the rising issues associated with this type of interaction? And should the issue of placating customer loneliness become more of a mandate for service and support representatives? Daniel Ord, the founder of Omnitouch International, which specialises in training contact centre staff, believes the actions of the customers, the customer service agents and also their managers must all be taken into consideration.

“First off, agents need to talk to their bosses and be sure this issue is on the radar where they work.  You’d be surprised that incoming mental health-related calls from customers, including loneliness, aren’t often discussed or covered in as many companies’ training or orientation as you’d expect.

“Then there’s the issue of the training itself, because it’s imperative that there is some kind of wider, ‘difficult situations’ training available to both agents and their managers, to ensure that the bigger issue – of which loneliness is a component –  is being covered: how to deal with controlling our emotions and how to deal with upset and angry customers.

“Finally we have to think about what acts as a barrier to agents being able to successfully talk freely with customers who may well be calling surreptitiously linked to a major mental health concern such as loneliness. Not to make light of an important topic, but a customer would need to be really lonely and really determined to navigate the maze that is certain organisations’ IVR options, chatbots and long wait times. Then there’s the metrics being enforced, such as Average Handling Time (AHT) or calls per hour. If you work somewhere where you’re targeted on number of calls or handling times – someone calling up out of loneliness or a mental health problem may experience an ‘abrupt’ or ‘curt’ response. In fact, the agent might even see them as annoying because they’re going to make them miss their KPI targets.”

Fit for purpose

This sentiment is echoed in Gartner’s response to its own prediction, citing the trend towards calling into contact centres as an example of the need for organisations to re-evaluate whether their self-service and automated options are really fit for purpose.     

"Lonely customers looking to fulfill their interpersonal needs through service organisations are unlikely to use self-service to resolve their issues, regardless of how well-designed the functionality is," Gartner’s senior research principal in the customer service and support, Emily Potosky states.

"To ensure they are not investing in suboptimal solutions, leaders must account for customer loneliness when attempting to diagnose why customers are still choosing assisted-service channels over self-service."

Not to make light of an important topic, but a customer would need to be really lonely and really determined to navigate the maze that is certain organisations’ IVR options, chatbots and long wait times

Gartner also predicts that by 2024 the top reason for customer service reps to leave their jobs will be the emotional exhaustion created by dealing with complex customer interactions outside their normal job responsibilities, stating that businesses will need to:

• Use speech analytics and sentiment analysis to identify customers who are calling because they are lonely.
• Coach reps on how to identify customers who are using the service interaction for emotional support and socialisation rather than true issue resolution.
• Protect reps and their relationships with customers by empowering reps to empathetically exit conversations with these customers.
• For extreme circumstances, ensure reps have the necessary mental health or suicide prevention resources to get customers to appropriate support.
• Ensure the analysis of self-service failure points includes this trend; as these customers will be difficult to migrate to self-service.

“Over the next few years, technologically driven service will become more intuitive and effective than is currently the case,” adds Forsyth. “As customers across all demographics, we are practicing digital much more now as we need to navigate Covid-related services.

"But what will be left are high emotion services requiring experience empathy, resilience and empowerment - all delivered in new operating models perhaps hybrid or even totally remote.

“Whilst many organisations coped with the urgent challenge of migration to home working models,  in retrospect this was simpler than the ‘build back better’ challenge that organisations are currently working towards in what is clearly an uncertain environment with many new emotional challenges – such as the lonely customer challenge that we’re witnessing.  

Brand initiatives

Gartner’s prediction may have shone a new light on the issue, but many brands have already taken steps towards combatting the increase in societal loneliness, and the role their contact centres can play.  

Sky Group, for instance, launched a campaign in 2021 alongside Age UK called Time to Care, volunteering thousands of hours of its customer service employees’ time to proactively reach out to older customers for informal ‘chats’.

The initiative wasn’t resigned to the contact centre, with field service engineers also being given volunteering hours every week to deliver meals and gifts on behalf of 15 different local Age UKs.

Elsewhere, CallCare, which operates one of the UK’s largest customer service outsourcing operations, has pledged to ‘no longer follow the scripts’ and empower its staff to simply ‘have a chat’ with customers when the situation arises, having seen call times into its contact centres balloon from an average of three minutes to nine, as a result of the pandemic.     

“Ultimately, if you work somewhere human, your bosses are going to let you be human,” says Daniel Ord. “They’re going to talk about all the different kinds of customers who reach you and how to have a great conversation with them; including those who are reaching out through loneliness.

“They’re going to put aside the industrial age KPIs that get in the way of having great conversations.  They’re going to really think about where automation ‘works’ and where it doesn’t and they’re going to tell you their rationale. It’s a bit of a pithy statement – but when the water rises, everyone in the boat rises. So by doing the right thing and empowering staff, all customers – including the lonely ones – will have a better experience.”

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