With roughly 70% of agents in the UK under 26, are we placing too much of an expectation on those young shoulders? And can empathy skills even be acquired in a short space of time rather than as part of a life long journey of experience and learning?

Beverley Hughes, Mullard Associates

Like it or not, we’re in an evolutionary stage of the Contact Centre. The exponential growth in communication channels has inevitably created more customer contact, with organisations looking to automation technology as the solution to our CX ills.

Consequently, Contact Centre agents everywhere, are now on a path that sees them handling ever more taxing conversations. We blithely refer to these as the complex calls, having shunted the simplistic stuff off down the self-serve shoot or to cheaper destinations. But oftentimes, what remains as ‘complex’ are really ‘complaints’ by another name.

Thankfully however, in the big-rolling-rock-Indiana-Jones-style avoidance of impending doom, we’ve spotted that all we need to do is hire agents with empathetic ability. Empathy will save the day. Or will it?

Can we look to science for the answer?

There’s a wealth of scientific research to show that empathy is developed very early on; in babies in fact, as this article explains.  The same article however, also points out a cautionary note about those best able to demonstrate empathy:

“Unfortunately, empathy can have some downsides. For example, the second requirement—feeling the same thing that someone else is feeling—can cause some personal distress. In fact, children who are particularly prone to feeling negative emotions are more prone to experiencing empathy (Spinrad and Eisenberg, 2019). In other words, children who are already extra sensitive, might experience intense negative emotions because of high empathetic concern for others.”

Finding the right balance

So, how are we to balance this desire to build upon the empathic ability of our front line employees with our duty of care for them? In an industry struggling to make improvements in all areas, not least staff retention, I believe the answers lie in three main areas:

  1. Recruitment – acknowledging that difficult conversations may be a frequent part of the role is an important part of setting expectations and discussing how the agent will be supported in either an office or home-based scenario, is vital. In my experience, those companies that practice great onboarding habits, with buddy systems and 2-way discussions throughout the ‘grad-bay’ experience, stand to gain most by way of employee loyalty and feelings of trust.
  2. Leadership – if we’re to hire agents with the ‘soft’ skills and attitude to deliver the best customer experience, it goes without saying that their managerial support system is competent in recognising the signs of burnout, detachment or worse. Equipping those often similarly young first time people managers, the team leaders, with the leadership qualities and techniques to manage stressful situations, is just as important.
  3. Analytics software – and finally, whilst tech might be getting a bad rap for creating the complex vs simple call flows, the technology of analytics points the way to understanding what’s happening on every interaction. It’s vital therefore that we apply it to dig deep into the archaeological layer if you will, where the evidence of sentiment will highlight where best to focus support and which areas of the customer experience are creating the most ‘resistance’.

I think Indy would approve.

Beverley Hughes is an independent consultant in the Contact Centre industry with over 30 years’ experience. Working with a variety of clients across commercial, operations and technology, she is known for bringing a pragmatic, ‘hands on’ approach to problem solving and possessing a limitless enthusiasm for the industry.