Are your contact center agents increasingly late for work or calling in sick? Are quality and productivity declining while error rates and customer complaints escalate? Do bad moods and negativity dominate the contact center? If this is happening, your culprit may be BURNOUT.
The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.
—William James, American Philosopher and Psychologist
Burnout is defined as “a state of emotional, physical and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress” (“Burnout Prevention and Treatment,” Helpguide.org). Stress is a common ailment in many contact centers at all levels and impacts both agents and management. The fact that we call this a “demand environment” is telling. The word “demand” is defined as “an urgent or peremptory request.” (I confess I had to look up “peremptory.”) Peremptory means “bossy,” which fits given the fact that we are talking about stress. Let’s face it; no one likes to be bossed around. That is stressful! Contact centers are sort of “bossed around” by the very demand they are handling.
The stability and foundation of any contact center is where demand is mitigated. A sound operational infrastructure sees to it that the right numbers of people are in the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing. A sound organizational infrastructure sees to it that strategic and budget needs are met. When the contact center is short-changed in either category, the stress of trying to meet objectives is distributed among those responsible—from management to frontline agents.
Contact centers continue to have many demands placed on them. Managing that demand is central to a healthy and thriving operation. This, in turn, is central to delivering on the brand and the customer experience. Few other parts of any enterprise encounter customers with as much frequency as do contact centers. They also take on a never-ending list of demands with varying levels of frequency and complexity… be it new channels (e.g., text, chat, email, voice) or new services.
Five Burnout Indicators and Tips to Remedy
The following are five solid indicators of burnout and some helpful tips for alleviating them.
1. Evaluate the “Cognitive Load”
“Cognitive load” is a term generally used by information architects and instructional designers to keep at top of mind that there is only so much the human brain can grasp and absorb on any given subject at any given time. I view cognitive load as a measure of what is being asked of the front line. Many organizations today agree that “human capital” in the contact center is reserved for the more complex, problem-solving demand. Alternative channels continue to absorb the lower complexity transactions. But there are limits. Current trends have customer service staff (who previously handled customer orders or inquiries) providing technical support to customers that use alternative channels such as websites, mobile apps and patient portals. These skills barely line up on “What the Agent Needs to Know” chart. Yet, in come the calls. Often, the stress factor occurs when little if any real training has been provided. (Keep in mind that stress is not always related to the task; it may also stem from a lack of confidence in performing the task.)
Train for all tasks assigned to the front line. Don’t take on activities without analyzing the skill sets required and determining how well they match to available staff.
2. Consider “Compassion Fatigue” Factors
“Compassion fatigue” is a term generally applied to nurses and caregivers. I believe it can be applied easily to contact centers in which the front line constantly deals with “problems” (another word to describe “complex”) and there is no relief. Someone once told me that compassion fatigue is like being emptied without filling up again.
The stress of compassion fatigue occurs when there is no compassion shown to the front line. If not enough staff are hired (100% a management problem), the effect is relentless demand put upon those who show up for work. If Contact Center management understaffs the operation, yet continues to take on additional work, the results can be damaging. Those charged with assisting customers will likely be stressed without the compassion to care about the experience the customer is having.
Hard work is not the culprit. People are happy to work hard when it is necessary. But when it is constant, there is no time for renewal. Stress replaces compassion!
Staff the contact center to meet your demand; schedule to match demand. Provide ongoing support and acknowledgment to the front line. Make emergencies short-lived. Be a compassionate leader!
3. Beware of Adding, Rules, Rules and More Rules
Do you find yourself adding rules to resolve performance issues? Well, the likelihood of it working is slim to none. Today’s unemployment rate ought to frighten leaders into providing environments that generate enthusiasm, learning and contribution rather than rules-driven dictatorships. Think about adherence; so many organizations flub this up. It doesn’t take an MBA to know that having staff adhere to a schedule is required to meet service level objectives. The tricky part is how you go about achieving those objectives.
If your organization is already on fire and someone says, “Let’s get serious about measuring adherence,” the implication is punitive in nature. “Measuring” is simply code for “punishing”—find the guilty and bring them to me. But then what? Late adoption of measures like adherence is an attempt to fill the poor staffing gap by pressuring those already burning out. The result is the potential loss of valuable resources. It is the “not-so-valuable” resources that often remain.
Change your language. We use “contribution to capacity.” After all, you are building a capacity model and agents are a critical factor. Train, inform, align and educate the front line in all they need to know.
4. Stop Giving Ice Cream to Combat Troops
When things go wrong in contact centers, there has always been the “free food” option as a way to rally the troops. This works, but only under the right conditions. If free food is the only action taken by management to resolve negative factors within stressful operations it may be more like “giving ice cream to combat troops.” Given the choice, staff would much rather have the conflict resolved and daily stress reduced than have a free snack.
Solve the problems that contribute to stress. Hold off on adding new people or programs until stability is restored. Fight for budget; make intelligent arguments for investing in the contact center. Continue to provide free food/snacks, but make them part of “bigger picture” training initiatives.
5. Know That Management Suffers, Too
Remember that burnout signals go both ways and agents are not the only victims. Contact center leaders also suffer. It is a dicey combination when burnt-out leaders try to improve the attitudes and behaviors of burnt-out agents.
Directly acknowledge the state of affairs. Do something—almost anything—to demonstrate that improvement efforts are being made whether they be new technology, training or quick-reference job aids.
Build Trust and Engage with Your Staff
When you begin to “lead” instead of “manage,” the path to positive action and calm emerges. Leaders must work very hard to build trust with the front line if burnout is or has been an issue. Engage with your staff; invite and respect their opinions on both conditions and solution options.
Take care of your people and take care of yourself. Take the pulse of your operation. Watch for billowing embers and avoid ignition by engaging as a collaborative team with the front line to identify and help resolve issues. Stress issues must be mitigated before business issues can be resolved.