Steve Sullivan

Who'd work in a contact centre when "everyone's angry"?

Steve Sullivan, Head of Regulatory Compliance, Contact Centre Panel

One of the biggest contact centre challenges of 2022 is still with us – the rising tide of rudeness and incivility, which is most often experienced at work by our frontline colleagues. Research conducted by Professor Christine Porath, across multiple countries, business sectors and customer-facing roles, demonstrates that this depressing trend is real and growing.

This HBR podcast about her article “Frontline Work When Everyone Is Angry” provides an authoritative view of the problem. But also offers some ways to combat this onslaught of unpleasantness and help protect the welfare of our colleagues at the customer service ‘coalface’.

It’s getting worse

Professor Porath shows that “rudeness or disrespect or insensitive behaviour” has worsened globally over 17 years and that by last August, 76% of people claimed that they had been treated rudely during the month.

Porath highlights that a lot of abuse is now experienced through digital channels, the use of which has grown massively. Even when not directly subject to abuse, people working in online content and community moderation are also exposed to damaging levels of intolerance and unpleasantness.

Covid and complexity

Porath also cites surveys showing a decrease in workplace community since Covid. As this McKinsey article explains, homeworking doesn’t necessarily worsen a sense of isolation and disengagement, but it often does. Traditionally, contact centres have – at their best – been cohesive and supportive workplaces. So in theory, contact centres should be well-placed to help support workers faced with rude and unpleasant behaviour, but many just aren’t.

At the same time, with the rise of self-service tools, the types of queries customers present to contact centres have become more complex, time-critical and emotionally charged.

So, our frontline colleagues are facing a toxic ‘double-whammy’ of consumer incivility and task complexity.

The costs 

Colleagues’ emotional damage and distress are obvious, but there are clear performance impacts too, says Porath: “they lose attention, lose focus, make more errors, and perform far worse.” Added to which, abused and unsupported staff quit their jobs, fuelling costs, colleague stress and management challenges.

How to help

Increasing rudeness and incivility is a complex, societal problem – but there are concrete measures you can take to help make things better:

1. Support your people and allow them to support themselves

  • EX and employee engagement aren’t woolly ‘nice to haves’, they are now essential to retain staff and support performance

2. Use technology to protect your frontline colleagues

  • Smart, adaptable and even self-learning technologies are now available to help screen staff from the worst abuse, especially on digital channels

3. Reconsider whether “the customer is always right”

  • ‘Liberating yourself’ from costly and damaging customers can provide a positive, supportive signal to colleagues

If you’d like to discuss how to better face up to the challenges of growing incivility and anger – or share with us what you’re already doing – just drop us a line.