74% of contact centre agents are now at risk of burnout.
Frustrated customers, repetitive tasks and daunting queues are adding daily pressure to agents.
The usual drivers of employee burnout apply equally to the contact centre environment: lack of personal growth, feeling bored, and feeling undervalued.
The pandemic (yes, I mentioned the pandemic already) hasn’t helped matters.
If customer service leaders don't take action, they're likely to risk:
Not to mention the suffering of a person under your supervision.
I caught up with four industry leaders to get their experience-based insights.
They've all experienced burnout firsthand and know the causes and solutions well.
So whether your agents are faced with overwhelming ticket volume or lack of career opportunity—we've got your back.
Related read: Best call center softwares for analytics and help desks in 2021
Customer service agents resolve tickets as fast as they can. Which is a good thing, time-to-resolution and customer satisfaction are inversely related—who wants to wait for ages when their pizza turned up in the wrong flavour?
However, when you’re faced with high ticket volume in combination with:
(1) not enough employees to keep waiting times short
(2) not enough time or budget to hire people
(3) not enough time or budget to tackle the problem with the latest customer service technology
Then the feeling of a need to resolve tickets quickly can work against your team.
A never-ending queue of tickets is a stressful situation in this context and a key driver of team burnout.
Alice Hunsberger, Senior Director of Customer Experience at Grindr, says that although these situations aren’t immediately solvable, there are ways to be a good leader through it all.
“The best thing to do is to jump in with the front line team and show them that you're triaging and working in the queues as well and that you understand what they're dealing with.
You also need to make it abundantly clear that solving the volume issue is your problem, not theirs. Support agents who care a lot about their jobs will try to take on the emotional burden of a backlog—because they care. This is great, but you need to try and free them of that, and let them know that you're stressing about it so they don't have to.
All they need to do is show up and do their best, and trust that you'll get it sorted out in the long-term.”
When an agent has been in their role for a little while and has mastered the ropes, boredom can set in quickly.
“The moment I master something, I get bored with it, and with boredom comes the itch to try something new.”—Neil Kane, How to Overcome the Boredom of Mastery.
How can you, as a leader, fix this problem?
Our team of experts have identified 6 ways to tackle this problem.
Let’s get started:
The first, and most obvious one, is help the agent move up and take on more responsibility.
If possible, progression up the corporate ladder can be a quick win for tackling burnout.
There’s a number of ways this can work: becoming a team lead, learning to train others, conducting quality assurance, writing knowledge base content, and taking on customer service improvement projects.
The major problem with this method is that it’s not always possible. Of course, we’d all love to progress agents when they’re ready but, the business might not be. So, what then?
Shawn Carter, Customer Care Support Lead at Aircall, made a great point that when monetary incentive or title progression is unavailable, you still might be able to change the individual's role to something they find more exciting.
“There's not always an option to cut back on the work they're doing to allow them time to do this, so this isn't always the easiest thing to implement, but it is an ideal way of making their job and role feel more diverse and feel like it's contributing to their success.
In the past, I have expanded the responsibilities of more senior team members who were in burnout by cutting back on more demanding areas of their job description to allow them to focus on supporting the team or working on new projects for the team that incorporate elements of what they'd like to be doing.
This has looked like engineering projects or hackathons that contribute to the support team's ability to accomplish their tasks more easily or heading projects that focus on interdepartmental communication and process changes.”
Personal accomplishment is an enormous driver that can keep agents focused and pumped for work.
Underpinning it all is linking the valuable work of the customer service team to business growth, ensuring agents feel more accomplished, important and valued.
Shawn agrees, “If you can tie forward movement in the company to personal success, this is ideal. For example, in support, the next milestone might be that the company has low churn for a quarter, or hits a churn goal. Support directly contributes to this, even though it's not always very obvious. Work with upper management to help identify the data that can tell the story of how support is contributing to the company success. This can give an employee a feeling of having contributed to something. That feeling of success and accomplishment can reinvigorate someone who just feels like they're putting in time and cashing a check.”
So in the short-term, it can be as simple as tying their work to business impact. And, in the long-term, the agent can begin to take on projects that directly impact business growth (like sales training, product insights, and tackling churn).
Rewarding agents in the right way can help tackle burnout. Title changes feed in to a sense of accomplishment and help improve their CV for future roles.
“While I wasn't able to get an immediate salary change in the budget for my last team, we did spend a quarter redefining what their work and skillsets actually looked like and promoted everyone from a "support rep" to a "support engineer" given that they did more engineering work than that role originally required. This gave them something to work with.”
While short term, it’s a necessity when an individual is performing well but the department or business isn’t. A micro-promotion like this can be a reassuring indicator that you value the team member and tide them over until a real promotion can come along.
“I try to keep this in mind and reiterate it often that I am invested, as their manager/leader, in making sure their time with our company is one that pushes them forward.”
There’s no one size fits all to fixing team burnout. It’s a personal experience and part of that means it’s within the individual’s control to rescue themselves.
However, that’s easier said than done. It’s hard to show weakness to your team and boss, and, especially if you’re British, to show any weakness at all.
Jenny Dempsey, Customer Experience Manager at Apeel Sciences & Fruitstand, tells us her story of burning out.
“In 2015, I had an anxiety attack in front of a group of agents that I managed."
“In 2015, I had an anxiety attack in front of a group of agents that I managed. My team was shocked. I looked fine, acted happy, didn't seem to have any problems at all. Personally, what led up to that moment was loads of stuffing my feelings, wanting to care for everyone else and put myself on the back burner, the company culture at that moment shifting to being pro-endless work stress instead and it not being a safe space to say "I can't do this".
I learned in that moment where I thought I was going to pass out in the office that burnout awareness starts with me. I would have never started to make changes had this not happened. I have to be open to doing something about it. To saying "no" to a project, to setting boundaries, to supporting my agents when they do the same. To have conversations about how to even do these things (setting healthy boundaries isn't taught in school). To give employees resources - easily accessible, affordable resources - that they can use without argument or hassle to take care of themselves. The more we give tools and resources to care for ourselves, teach our agents to care for themselves and the more we as leaders care for ourselves, the more the company culture will shift and burnout will shift as well. It won't be gone forever, but if we look at burnout as the bad guy that we try to hide from, we will always have it trailing along at our feet. We need to look at it face on, talk about it and make it real, nothing to be ashamed of and yet something to be mindful of staying away from.”
Enablement is a core part of leadership which Jenny hits well. When a subject is (unfortunately) taboo like mental health, giving employees access to self-help can be powerful.
Sometimes, your hands are tied as a leader.
When that’s the case the only way to support a team member out of burnout is transparency, honesty and clarity.
Charles Sustaita, Technical Support Manager at Rackspace, talks about the hardest part of managing a team during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I took a 30-person team that was previously all in office to being 100% remote in the matter of a few days, and it wasn’t easy."
Here’s how we supported them and helped to prevent burnout:
Sometimes there are no options and the sooner your team know that, the sooner they can make a decision to leave to a more fulfilling role or tackle their burnout another way.
Building a truly respectful relationship between yourself and your team is vital. Being open and honesty in the face of difficulties is part of that respect.
Thank you to our four experts for the insight today. If you’d like to know when the opportunity arises to add insight, do a mini-interview or record a podcast, join our expert community here.
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