A few weeks ago, this column introduced the theme of Emotional Intelligence or ‘EI’ – the perception, control and constructive use of emotions in ourselves and in others (the ‘opposite’ intelligence from left-brain logic, as reflected in IQ.)
By chance, one of my clients who was suffering from occupational stress and required counselling was a young woman who was working long hours at a large customer-service call-centre, and it occurred to me for the first time that call-centres were a prime test of EI. This is ironical, because a call-centre is supposed to be the super-rational answer that reduces customer services to a smooth sequence of well-rehearsed scripts intended to improve the customer relationship, free of stress effects, where all those inevitable emotions of anger and frustration are neatly shunted out of the picture. It is meant to be the triumph of left-brain logic.
But in fact, the emotional charge is always there. Under the ‘battery-hen’ conditions of the typical call-centre, with no opportunities to walk off your frustrations, it is not hard to see how stress and anxiety can rise dangerously.
My client, Beth, was finding it impossible to cope with the customers’ anger being directed at her, when none of the issues were her own fault. They kept talking as though she personally was responsible each time, and she began to suffer irrational guilt feelings that were upsetting her sleep. Some of the verbal attacks were upsetting and hurtful, she confided.
I said this was the first thing she must appreciate – to realize that she is merely a conduit for the frustrations of the customer. Frequently, the complaint is not entirely justified, and the caller may well have some personal problems that they are wanting to take out on you. This could be anything from a chronic illness to an unhappy marriage, and at those times you need to remember that their problem is likely to be much worse than your momentary feelings of insult. You can be glad that you do not have their problems.
Then there was some advice that I’d heard from other call-centre workers. One was to manage your breathing. As the tension rises, your breathing will tend to become shallower and faster. So you can counteract this by taking deep breaths, right down into your stomach, until you are feeling calmer. The other was to identify particular triggers that seem to anger you, and to be ready for these, so you can handle your response. For example, Beth said she was always irritated when people demanded to know her name. So I taught her to have a response ready, explaining calmly that all calls were logged, and that the dialogue could be officially investigated at any time.
Finally, I reminded her that she was in a challenging job, where the handling of difficult customers was part of the required skill-set. If she cultivated the art of turning an unhappy customer into a happy customer, she would experience a particular kind of satisfaction at having overcome such a difficult challenge. And that was apart from being acknowledged as a master of her profession, and doubtless given recognition and reward for this.
Key points about call-centre stress
- Call-centres are a prime example of Emotional Intelligence
- Difficult customers present a major challenge for the agent
- There are practised routines for deflecting a caller’s anger
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[Reprinted with the kind permission of Gulf News]
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