Are you protecting your contact centre agents from rising customer hostility?


January 18, 2023

Are you protecting your contact centre agents from rising customer hostility?

Caroline Thomas
Senior CX Service Designer

Challenging economic times require fresh vulnerability policies and thinking.

Do you know the level of abuse your contact centre agents are exposed to on a daily basis?

According to a recent study by The Institute of Customer Service, the number of frontline staff who have experienced hostility from customers has risen by 10% since February 2022, with nearly half (45%) of those surveyed reporting that they have been subjected to hostility.

In addition, the research found that one in three (34%) customer-facing employees anticipate that their roles will become even more challenging in the next six months, due to customer concerns about rising energy prices and the cost of living.

As a result, 40% of agents are considering leaving their role, which, combined with the already high turnover rates in the sector, could lead to a further deterioration in service levels.

Contact centre agents are expected to handle a wide range of customer concerns and complaints, many of which are difficult and emotionally charged.

It is also likely that these agents are experiencing the same or similar challenges as the customer. That means more agents are being classed as vulnerable than ever before.

Research conducted by Harvard Business Review found that:

  • The typical level of ‘difficult’ calls ranges from 10% to 20%, and the pandemic made customer experience statistics worse.
  • The average company saw the percentage of calls scored as ‘difficult’ by agents increase by more than 100%.

What’s causing rising levels of abuse?

There are several reasons why customers are becoming more abusive to contact centre staff.

Societal issues, such as increased stress and anxiety levels due to the ongoing impact of the pandemic, can be one cause. Economic uncertainty, along with the impact of the cost of living and energy crisis on household budgets, is another.

These factors can also affect individual health and well-being which can heighten concerns and stress levels when talking to customer service agents.

Anonymity and a perceived lack of accountability in phone and online interactions can also make customers more likely to behave badly.

They may feel that they can be more aggressive or abusive because they are not speaking with someone face-to-face and don’t think there will be consequences to their unsavoury behaviour.

Further divisive societal changes – a rise in misinformation and ‘fake news’ online, is also a possible factor in more confrontational interactions.

The UK Parliament recently passed a new law, The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2022 which increases legal protections for customer service workers and aims to address growing hostility towards them.

The legislation is certainly a positive step forward, but it should not be viewed as a panacea to the problem.

Unfortunately, reports suggest that abuse towards customer service staff is still on the rise.

What can businesses do?

When an organisation or individual needs to rely on legal action to address abuse they have encountered, it suggests that the damage has already occurred and cannot be undone.

This is not an ideal solution, and court proceedings are costly, time-consuming, and far from immediate.

It is important that organisations, businesses and society as a whole work proactively to prevent abuse before it occurs, and that they provide appropriate and timely support to employees if, and when, it does.

Companies are beginning to understand the importance of implementing policies and benefits that can effectively assist their employees during life’s difficulties.

Previously, it was the responsibility of the employee to manage their own well-being and address any personal issues in order to fulfill their work duties and achieve desired results.

However, more and more organisations are beginning to understand the importance of fostering a positive work environment that nurtures the success of their employees. It is becoming increasingly clear that employers should take steps to ensure that every member of their team feels supported, included and valued.

Jo Causon, CEO at the UK Institute of Customer Service puts it like this: “As leaders, we have to see this as a stark wakeup call and find ways to protect and support our frontline employees, as well as maintaining and delivering appropriate levels of customer service, in what we all know is a very challenging environment for customers and business.

“This has in my mind never been more important – as customers seek greater levels of support, advice, and reassurance on everything, from cheaper alternatives to managing their payments.”

Most businesses accept that they have a duty of care to their teams, but are they fully considering their employee vulnerabilities?

David Noone, Innovation Evangelist at contact centre software provider, Odigo, says: “If a company can tie this into real business results – including low absenteeism, attrition, and customer engagement – supporting vulnerable agents is then much more than just the right thing to do. It becomes an opportunity to save the company money and stress at every level of the contact centre.”

Do you and your organisation understand which of your agents are vulnerable at any given point in time? If you don’t, perhaps you should get in touch with us.

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