Featured Image for the blog: Training Your Call Center Agents to Sound the Alarm on Harassment in Abusive Customer Interactions Instantly Can Fuel Agent Empowerment

When I was in college, I worked in a call center. And one call is ingrained in my mind as a permanent reminder of how not to interact. The customer who called in was just so insulting and so…mean. See, I was the last person on the shift. We were closing in 15 minutes and there was only one person left on my list to call.

Sure, the news I had to deliver wasn’t what he was wanting to hear. But his response back was just abusive. From name-calling to general personal insults, he just belittled me. I remember driving home, holding in my tears so I could see the road. 

I was the only agent left in the call center and I was completely unprepared to take on the nastiness of the customer. Don’t get me wrong, I know working as a call center agent isn’t necessarily a glamorous job. Customers tend to reach out when they’re upset, so agents are taking the brunt of their frustrations.

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This wears on agents. Call center agents contend with bullying with alarming regularity. The psychological, emotional and financial consequences of this bullying are staggering in scope. 

Add a global crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and these numbers are sure to rise. Why? Your customers are as stressed as you are. Everyone is experiencing some kind of anxiety during this season. Unemployment is the highest it’s been in recent memory, families are experiencing financial stress, there’s fear about contracting the virus, or passing the virus, or wearing masks or not wearing masks. The list is endless. 

It’s a lot easier to take out that stress on those around you — particularly call center agents. Nearly 37% of people have felt they have been cyberbullied in their lifetime. But the digital and virtual environments we’re all living in due to COVID-19 are enabling abusive behaviors. And training call center agents to see and squash abusive is vital to their well-being (and yours).

From Bullying to Burnout

In the general workforce, customer support is one of the functions most at risk for burnout, and that’s without crisis. According to a 2016 study, 74% of call center agents were at risk for burnout. And, 30% of those agents are desperately hanging on to workplace sanity by a measly thread. And that was before the pandemic.

In Dr. Guy Winch’s book The Squeaky Wheel, he interviewed call-center representatives and heard many stories of terrible verbal and emotional abuse. One woman at a call center said, “People burst into tears here all the time. I was cursed at, called stupid, slow, moron, and idiot so many times a day-I cried myself to sleep every night.” 

Why didn’t she quit? She was a single mother and she needed the job.

Call-center employees often don’t have the luxury of calling back-up or security to take over. Some call center employees are told to stay on the line and salvage the relationship with any customer, no matter how hostile the call is. 

According to Dr. Winch, agents can average up to 10 hostile encounters a day in which they are subject to vile and personal insults, screaming, cursing and threats. Imagine experiencing this kind of verbal abuse multiple times a day. Every. Single. Day.

Contact center agents are prone to burnout. Read up on 8 reasons that agents experience burnout and how you can avoid it. 

How could this persistent verbal abuse affect your contact center? Contact centers have some of the highest turnover rates in the country, ranging between 30-45%, more than double the average for all other occupations. And the average call center agent lifespan is just three years. 

Turnover is expensive and takes a toll on morale. How frustrating to pour time and energy into your agents and be unable to retain them because of the toll of stress. It’s not impossible to combat stress and abusive language from angry customers. 

As a manager, you can provide training to support and coach agents through those abusive online experiences. Let’s dig into some practical ways you can support your agents and combat abuse in your contact center

Train Call Center Agents to Identify Abusive Language

Unfortunately, handling angry customers is just part of the job for a contact center agent. If 75% of customers believe it takes too long to reach a live agent, it’s likely that by the time they reach your agents, their inquiry or issue is amplified and they’re pretty upset. 

The difference between an angry customer and an abusive one lies in where the anger gets directed. Is the anger and language aimed at the company and the product that failed them? Or, is it directed at the agent? There’s a difference between a customer who says “I’m getting really frustrated, this issue keeps happening,” versus the customer who starts name-calling your agent. 

The line needs to be drawn so you, manager, can define when it’s being crossed. There are clear stories of abuse including threats of physical harm or violence, inappropriate religious, cultural or racial insults, and homophobic, sexist or other derogatory remarks. But disrespect, sexualized, and racist comments can be hard to identify in the moment. 

Find the Stories

Use your own team’s stories or look on Reddit and Facebook to find some extreme and unfortunately common examples of abusive language. 

One example of sexism I read was from a call center agent in Toronto who had a customer tell her repeatedly, “Put a man on the phone.”  She goes on to say, “They will tell you that you’re stupid and you’re an idiot. It’s pretty terrible. They’ll say anything to you. It’s amazing. It’s amazing what people will say to somebody else.”

Walk through some case studies of both subtle and overt disrespect, sexual, and/or racist commentary with your team and talk through tactics to confront a customer. Make sure your agents know there are boundaries so they don’t have to put themselves through the abuse.

Some contact centers, like Admiral Insurance, let agents make the judgment call for when a line gets crossed. Each individual has a limit on how much they can take from a single interaction. At Admiral, they let the agent determine when they give up on a customer interaction to protect their own health.

This could be successful for your team, but if your agents need a little more clarity around when they’re allowed to walk away, sit down with your team and define the limit. For each of the categories above, give your agents space to reflect on past interactions and voice what shifts in language from a customer are too much. Spend time training your call center agents to identify these moments and empower them to step away.

An agent’s job is to provide customers with a resolution to their issues, but abuse and disrespect keeps them from being successful.

Have a Clear Policy in Place to Protect Your Agents

Unfortunately, there are so many call centers that have policies that require agents to stay on the line with abusive customers, there are online petitions and unions in place to encourage agents to hang up on abusers. But there are few policies in place that support agents and empower them to walk away from destructive interactions with customers. 

In fact, some contact centers require an agent to give a customer three or four warnings before they’re allowed to terminate a call. This puts all of the responsibility in the agents’ hands and requires they put up with demeaning language, even if it’s extreme. 

Consider setting a zero-tolerance policy in your call center, training call center agents to hang up on abusive interactions at-will. Or, draw distinct lines so your agents know when to escalate the call to you. In your call center training, emphasize the two-way relationship your customers have with your company and the agents in your call center. Your customers should be partners with you and your brand. Hold your customers accountable in that partnership. 

They should respect your brand and your employees enough to speak with kindness. And, your agents should feel empowered to not only define their limits but to walk away from abusive interaction.

Happy employees lead to happy customers. Build a people-first culture in your call center and see a ROI.

Be flexible with your agents so they have space to relieve stress. If your agents need to step away for a bit after an abusive phone call or chat, let them! A few minutes for them to take a breather could be what they need to remain calm, readjust and process the abuse they’ve faced. This time will then help them return to work with a healthy attitude. If they have a particularly tough day with customer interactions, work with them to take a mental health day so they can step away from the phones. 

It’s overwhelming to deal with abuse and then go back to the phones. If your agents need to devote some time to work off the phone, let them take over emails for a bit. Or, give them the flexibility to pivot away from customer-facing work for some time to work on internal projects. Setting policies that support your agents as humans will enable your agents to care for your customers better and sustain better mental health. 
Satisfied and engaged employees benefit your customers’ experience and your company. Read up on the bottom-line benefits of employee engagement.

Improving your agent experience pulls the lever for a better customer experience. Learn the 9 positive business impacts of a better agent experience.