How to change the call centre experience - and improve everyone's mental health - Stephen Gillatt - ContactCenterWorld.com Blog
The scenario is familiar. The letter box pings. Letters hit the floor and the letter box pings back. On the floor lay envelopes – maybe one with a red strip. We’ve all seen them, and know what they are – notification of missed payments, or demand letters…
If you’re living with mental health problems or mental illness. This is the first trigger. Many people will be overcome by paranoia and raging anxiety. The letter may go straight into the bin, un-opened – especially if we know who it’s from. Normally the stamp or address gives it away. I know from experience.
I’ve also worked in a call centre for about four years. So, have experience of both ends of the line, so to speak. Me? I’ve lived with mental illness for twenty-five years; and have recently been diagnosed as bipolar.
Someone customers will sit with the phone in their hand for ages, getting more and more anxious and upset, even before they start dialling. They’re already on edge, possibly ashamed, almost certainly vulnerable.
Then it can just spiral; and be agony. This is not hyperbole or sensationalist. Firstly, having to go through recorded multiple-choice options, and sometimes going around and around in circles… Then finally going though to the standard ‘on-hold’ music. All the while anxiety rising… While we wait, and wait, and wait and wait. While we simmer and boil.
I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to wait more than fifteen minutes before even speaking to someone. Then by the time someone answers I’m already angry, flustered, defensive and frustrated.
And what about the other end? The call centre staff. Most of whom are measured by number of calls made and answered, money collected, sales and other criteria depending on the business sector. As well as call duration and wrap up times – standard stuff you may think? But it comes with performance pressure… Pressure I’ve felt, battled, been uncomfortable with, disagreed with, and understood. You must always consider the business angle too.
Add to this that one of every three or four people working in the call centre is living with mental ill-health. This means they might be struggling – anxious, stressed out or depressed most days or every day. Or facing any number of other challenges… This to me, is a perfect storm. All these factors can and often do, conspire to create exactly the environment you don’t want to be in when speaking to customers.
The reality is you could easily have someone calling your organisation who is anxious, and the phone being answered by someone in the same situation. Going through the same emotions.
The dynamics of the call mean, as an organisation you will have an agenda that fits your business model. The customer has their own. People rarely call an organisation when things are going well. Unless you’re a tour operator, for example. But even holiday bookings are being done more and more online.
One in four of your customers as a minimum, will be living with poor mental health... Which can make conversations difficult. I’ve spoken to thousands of people over the years as an employee; and talked to many vulnerable people. Some clearly very unwell. I’ve also worked with a wide range of external agencies, and regularly facilitated multi-agency working. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve put the phone down after a very difficult call and felt like crying.
In social housing this is an all too familiar situation. But the reality is so many people are dealing with so many things, across the whole of society.
So, if you’re target-based and closely monitored, you’re going to push aren’t you – because you have an idea of what you need from every call. And within reason, do whatever it takes to get your desired outcome. I’ve seen and heard it, often disagreeing with it.
I’ve also been on the other end of these calls and it’s no exaggeration to say that when the call has ended, I’ve felt terrible. So often after a call’s ended, both parties don’t feel great. It’s a lose-lose situation, and not acceptable. Just being told to go for a cigarette or a five-minute break doesn’t always work.
So much money is put into physical wellbeing schemes, like bicycle funding and discount gym memberships. But what is being put in place to support people living with mental illness, who - and let’s make no mistake here – want to work and are very capable. Mental illness doesn’t mean people cannot contribute, be productive; creative and inspirational.
So, what can be done? And yes, something can always be done. It just comes down to whether you’re prepared to embrace change. But also review how you work and being totally honest about it. If you don’t then it’s just a waste of emotional energy and financial resources.
Because this is two-fold - customer and employee experience. Both of which are equally important to you. Your staff are not trained social workers or counsellors, and nor should they be. But they are increasingly being exposed to more and more and more customer honesty, and distressing stories of people in trouble.
So what kind of initiatives can you think about, or even put into place:
· Take away the pressure of calls needing to be ended within a certain time-frame. Take the approach of quality over quantity; focus not scattergun.
· Targets must be realistic. If people are continually pushed; eventually they will break; or break down. There must be an equilibrium. People only have a finite amount of time to do what you want them to do.
· Be more flexible where you can. People get very anxious if they feel they are being continuously watched and monitored. It can be massively counterproductive; and undermine or erode trust. Your team will be more productive if they feel supported, not pressurised.
· Invest in people. This means time and money on training. Give people time to absorb your ethos and ways of working. Job shadowing on its own can make people feel disillusioned and demotivated. Particularly if they’re coming into a busy, unorganised environment.
· Have a calm room, where people can go to relax. Simple calm colours and lighting, and basic amenities, maybe even bean bags. In bad weather staff can sometimes have nowhere to escape to. Pressure can build, and people can spiral quickly. There needs to be a method of release
· Somebody, ideally a middle manager should complete mental health management training. If you have a manger living with mental health issues who can do it; all the better. Early intervention and talking about problems can help organisations to identify and support staff through their mental health problems.
· Staff need training too. To help them understand themselves and their colleagues better. But also, so they communicate on a more empathetic level with your customers. Train and support your staff to be able to really listen. It’s an art, and when done properly and sincerely, dramatically improves phone calls. Huge amounts are spent by organisations on cultural training, staff branding and conferences. Maybe it’s time to rethink the direction of spending towards something more holistic, and dare I say it, more beneficial.
· Make your managers visible and approachable. It simple, but people want to feel they have the support they need to succeed and excel.
· Make sure you have a robust, but sensible absence management procedure. This is very traumatic for people the further along they go along it. They will need to feel; and be supported.
· Don’t brush mental health under the carpet. Don’t be afraid if it. But don’t do things just to tick a box. Offer staff the opportunity to shape how your organisation trains, educates, supports, facilitates and develops people. It might be challenging, but with the right approach, you can harness the talent and experiences of your staff. Show them you believe in them and that the business takes mental illness seriously. Have ‘time-to-talk’ sessions or similar open forums where people can vent and air their views. Either as a group or confidentially. Get to know your staff in a professional capacity, learn about cumulative triggers and flash points. You cannot do anything if you don’t know what the problem is.
· Offer flexible working patterns where possible. Working from offices closer to home, or even having a day working at home to reduce stressful commuting. Even compressed hours if staff can maintain consistent levels of productivity. Work life balance is becoming more and more important. As is staff happiness. Having a better balance will also improve short-term, and long-term absence figures.
· The day-to-day… If someone is late for whatever reason, allow flexibility to make it up that day. For example, take a shorter lunch or work late. Monitoring people to the tiniest degree will breed resentment. What do your staff worry about at work? What are the real barriers? What makes them anxious at work? Try to find out and address these issues. Show staff you are serious about finding mutually beneficial resolutions.
· Look into offering/setting up health classes which can be attended during company time. An hour a week, for example, costs nothing in comparison to lost productivity due to staff illness.
Maybe this is an unrealistic utopian vision. But the fact remains most of us spend more time at work than we do at home. And people spend far too long on hold to their suppliers, and part of unpleasant conversations that they shouldn’t need to. So surely, it’s in everyone’s interest to get as close to utopia as we can.
My name is Stephen Gillatt. I’m currently writing a set of workshops which will initially be rolled out by myself, and then taken over by internal mental health ambassadors. As well as more formal keynote talks about mental health at work. I have also written a mental health memoir entitled ‘Mad, sad dysfunctional dad’ which will be published in March.
Publish Date: February 14, 2019 11:47 PM