Why contact centre work is so tough, and what we can do about it

Call centre stress
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Anita Cameron has worked in the contact centre at Center Parcs – the UK’s leading holiday village brand – for 25 years. She still remembers the most defining experience of her tenure.  

“I answered a call to a woman who wanted to book a Treehouse. I could tell that she was ill because I could hear her oxygen machine on the other side. I could hear her laboured breathing. She told me that she had two young children and wanted to give them a holiday that they’ll remember.      

“[The lady] asked whether this Treehouse would have a games console in and, at that point in time, our Treehouses didn’t have that particular one. So I rang the village to explain the situation and asked whether we could get one, to pull the stops out for her, which the village quickly did…

“A month or so later, the husband of this lady called me to say that they’d all really enjoyed their time but that his wife had passed away soon after. That really did upset me; I think it will stay with me for the rest of my life.” 

Contact centre work is tough. Most people employed in the sector spend their days repeatedly answering calls, texts, emails and more from customers who need rapid resolution to an issue at hand, and are often emotionally charged.     

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Roughly 4% of the UK population is employed by contact centres – around 734,000 agent positions – at last count. Yet the demanding environment the employees reside, means attrition is higher than any other sector, at around 20%. More than one in five contact centres experience annual churn rates of over 30%. This has a knock-on effect on remaining employees, with many made to feel less engaged in their workplaces where staff turnover is high.    

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Source: ContactBabel

Complex environments     

Solutions to the issue of staff churn have long been mooted. Four years have passed since Dr. Nicola Millard, one of the UK’s leading authorities on the industry, coined the phrase “superagent”; in the process declaring that businesses would have to shift their thinking from contact centres being seen predominantly as cost-centres to being seen as ‘relationship hubs’ – the central function in which all customer interactions flow; a business’s base for furthering knowledge about their customers’ experiences. As a result, businesses would have to work hard to improve their contact centre agents’ working environment.

“The contact centre is handling more complex and emotive calls, so now we have to say ‘let’s step back and assess what kind of skills these agents need’,” Millard stated, in 2014.

“They have to be brilliant communicators firstly, because of the complexity; but also, because products and services appear to be getting more intricate. So you then need an agent who can solve problems analytically. They need to be able to stick the fork into the spaghetti of back-end process in order to sort some of these problems out.

“They’re almost going to need to be project managers and to understand the finest details of their product, which will require a sharp increase in training and understanding in some call centres.”

These statements are as prevalent now – if not more so – than in 2014. Contact centres are only increasing in complexity, and the skills required are only evolving.

Businesses are dealing with up to five generations of customer and persona, plus a youth demographic that is often swayed entirely by the dominant channels within peer groups at any given moment.  

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Source: IFS-mplsystems

This issue of this type of multichannel engagement continues to have an effect on the wellbeing of contact centre employees. As Susannah Richardson, marketing director at IFS-mplsystems explains, “In the contact centre space, the complexity that agents are facing when it comes to which channels they are expected to interact through is increasing, thus having a massive effect on the experience they deliver to customers.

“It’s not just the increase in channels – the type of question is getting more and more complex. We can resolve simple stuff like password changes and address changes on our own through self-service. We only need help when the query is more complicated; plus a customer has probably interacted with your business on different channels prior to engaging with an agent and expects the agent to have some visibility of that.”

More often than not, however, this is harder to achieve than it sounds.

“Many businesses fall into the trap of opening up new channels without consideration of how they tie to existing channels, or whether their agents know how to interact in the mode according to the channel,” Richardson adds. “This leads to unhappy customers, which leads to disengaged and unhappy agents.”  

It’s not just the increase in channels – the type of question is getting more and more complex

Empowering agents

So what do we need to do to make life easier for contact centre workers? As Nicola Millard explained, training and understanding from within the business is fundamental. Basic workplace environment is also crucial: “Call centres should try to provide a properly set up environment with enough space, proper air conditioning, massage therapy and [even] nurses on duty,” says Dr Kevin Rosman, commenting on the industry’s difficulties for Health24.

Yet, when it comes to the common issue of complexity, technology has to play the central role.

“Businesses are listening to some degree, in that they’re focusing on customer experience as a metric in the contact centre, but they’re giving agents more difficult targets to meet as a result,” says Richardson.

“They need to invest in making multichannel engagement simpler for agents, first. Typically contact centre agents aren’t getting all of their information in one place; which is the only way to be able to do this properly. Typically they’ll have to log into five or six different systems beyond their CRM in order to retrieve all of the information they have on a customer. That’s not an efficient system.”

It’s been found that up to 27% of staff in medium-sized contact centres have to use four applications or more in processing the details of an interaction with a customer. This has led to a dramatic increase in average speed to answer rates (44 seconds for those using four or more applications vs 12 seconds for those using less than four) and higher call abandonment rate (6.4% vs 4.2%).

What’s more, during calls, a staggering 60% of contact centres state that they spend a minimum of 10% of all inbound calls navigating between different screens and applications to resolve a problem; 19% of which spend 30% or more of each call doing so.

Typically contact centre agents aren’t getting all of their information in one place; which is the only way to be able to do this properly

As highlighted in IFS - mplsystems’ new report, Why Omni-Channel Without Unified Desktops Remains Multi-Channel Mayhem, agents need clearer visibility if they’re expected to be truly multichannel for their customers, and a much simpler method of dealing with requests, regardless of where they’re coming from.

Unsurprisingly, investment in dashboard tools is said to be a key priority alongside coaching, training and quality monitoring, for contact centre leaders in 2018.  

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Susannah Richardson says the repercussions of not easing complexity in the contact centre are simple: “Agents need to be empowered to resolve customer queries across multiple channels or you’re going to lose your best agents.”  

The added kicker in this scenario is – your best agents are also probably your most engaged, and even your greatest brand advocates too. Just ask Center Parcs’ Anita Cameron, who says it’s a common misconception that contact centre workers aren’t happy because of the type of work they have to undertake.

“It’s not a job that you can be down in. I always say that you might come in feeling fed up but you never go home feeling down.”

What isn’t a misconception is how hard the job is – any tools available that can ease the strain have to be considered if businesses are going to start taking their contact centres – and the employees within – more seriously.

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About Chris Ward

Chris Ward

Chris is Editor of MyCustomer. He is a practiced editor, having worked as a copywriter for creative agency, Stranger Collective from 2009 to 2011 and subsequently as a journalist covering technology, marketing and customer service from 2011-2014 as editor of Business Cloud News. He joined MyCustomer in 2014.

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07th Jul 2018 16:32

I did a research project a couple of years ago to learn the leading causes of contact center agent burnout. Burnout can lead to attrition, absenteeism, lower productivity, poor customer service, low engagement, etc. so it definitely goes hand-in-hand with your post here. The number #1 risk factor? Agents who felt their organization or contact center was not customer focused.

You can see more of the research here if you wish:
www.toistersolutions.com/burnout

Thanks (3)
09th Jul 2018 10:34

Thanks Jeff - very relevant. Also, the research you referenced in 2016 around duel-screening and multitasking is extremely pertinent, as it highlights one key truth: that focus is being taken away from serving customers.

Interesting in that multitasking/ duel-screen research that the argument around managing complexity appears to lead to increasing the number of tasks an agent can do at any one time, yet this invariably leads to a more intense workload, leading to the burnout you've mentioned. Doesn't feel like the right solution - something I hope this article goes some way towards highlighting.

Thanks (1)
to Chris Ward
10th Jul 2018 17:47

I was actually a little surprised that having dual screens wasn't even more of a burnout risk factor!

The funny thing about that one is I ask contact managers why they have dual (and sometimes triple) screens on their workstations. Most of the time, they cite some study about improved productivity, but of course they haven't actually read any of the studies. (Not coincidentally, those studies were written by companies that manufacture monitors.)

You are right that we do have to be careful about whether we're really helping the customer.

Thanks (1)
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17th Jul 2018 10:48

More screens = more distraction. That's not something reserved for call centre employees, that's something we're all grapling with.

Call centre agents need to be a) paid more and b) paid a little bit more on top of that. Difficult job that doesn't get the credit it deserves.

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