Irate Caller
Illustration by JMA

In a previous blog post, I provided tips to help managers and team leaders prepare their frontline agents to handle irate callers. It’s also important to provide support for your agents after an irate call: An upset agent can actually cause their next caller to become irate. Have you ever seen this? One of your agents takes an emotionally challenging call. Instead of taking a few seconds to reset, put a smile on their face and help the next customer, they just dive right into the next call. But, the agent is still upset from the last call, so their vocal tone sounds terse and they do not bother to truly listen to the caller. The new caller, who was not irate to begin with, lashes out at this nasty-sounding, impatient customer service rep—and a new irate caller is born!

Worse, the agent vents to their peers about their string of “bad calls.” Since misery loves company, you soon have several agents discussing how callers are awful, ungrateful and undeserving of good service. That leads to general morale problems and spreading poor customer service.

The following are tips to help you provide a supportive environment for your agents and help them cope with the stress of handling difficult calls.

Have an Escalation Process

While you do not want to encourage agents to escalate calls a second level, having a proper escalation process is important. Create and communicate criteria as to when it is appropriate to escalate a call. For example, escalating a call if the client has already spoken with another agent and insists on speaking with a supervisor this time.

On the other hand, it is also important to train your agents on how NOT to escalate calls unnecessarily. Agents can use a variety of techniques such as saying, “I can transfer you to a manager. To help them prepare to assist you, may I have your account number and a brief description of the help you need?” The agent can then use their questioning and listening skills to diagnose the problem and hopefully avoid an escalation.

Give Agents a Chance to Reset for the Next Call

Allow your agents to take a few seconds after a challenging call to recover. Encourage them to take a deep breath, look at a favorite photo to help them smile or even stand up at their desk to stretch and release any tension. This will help them refresh for their next call, so the next caller receives great customer service.

Create a Channel for Agents to Provide Feedback on Customer Trends

In his best-selling book, Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman uses the phrase “learned helplessness” to describe how people give up when confronted with a barrage of unsolvable problems. That phrase can also apply to agents who are confronted by a barrage of repeated irate calls. They may give up emotionally and go into “learned helplessness” where they feel like their actions are no longer making a difference.

Support your agents in making a difference. Build a feedback loop so they can provide you with information on the systems, policies, billing errors, etc., which cause customers to become irate in the first place. Forward that information to the department responsible for creating that issue and work with them on a solution. Whether you call it “voice of the customer” or just plain old-fashioned teamwork, your agents will feel more empowered if their feedback is recognized and used.

Remember the “Parking Lot” Story

The CEO of a large telecom company was walking across the parking lot from his car to the head office. It was early in the morning. The weather was cold and windy. He had his head down and was trudging slowly toward the building when a group of employees spotted him through the office windows. Within minutes, rumors began to fly around the building: “The CEO looks tired! His head was down. He looks depressed! Maybe the company is going bankrupt. Maybe we will all be fired or laid off. I should brush off my resume!”

Even when you think they are not looking, your employees watch you for clues on how to behave. Role-model the behaviors you want them to use with your callers. Stay positive, focus on how your team helps customers and provide all the support you can to the agents who are the face of your company. Your leadership, coaching and training support can make a huge difference in how your agents approach challenging client situations.

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