Stop Drama from Poisoning Your Customer Service Team


Stop Drama from Poisoning Your Customer Service Team
Illustration by Richard Slater for Contact Center Pipeline

In my 25 years in the contact center industry, I have seen a lot of drama. Before I knew how to handle it, I watched it do real damage to teams and organizations. It usually starts with increased attrition and distracted and disengaged employees, and ends with poor performance and spiraling customer satisfaction.

In this article, I will define the different types of drama that can poison a call center. I’ll also share tactics I have found that can reverse the infectious negativity drama brings.

Call centers, like any other workplace, attract every kind of employee. Some are jaded and untrusting and keep their guards up at all times. Other employees show managers a happy and cheerful face while undermining morale in the background. The rest of your employees may be just trying to do their jobs, perform well and stay above the fray.

I have found that if you can quickly identify the different types of problematic people in your center, it’s easier to find and stop the spread of drama. It can also help you discover the true gems on your team and hire more of them. A no- to low-drama center is stronger, your employees are happier, and your customers are delighted.

Personality Profiling

Repeat drama offenders often exhibit specific personality profiles. The behaviors they display are red flags that drama is coming, in progress or well underway. Of course, we’re all unique—and most importantly, we all have life stories that may explain negative behaviors that lead to drama. If you have an employee or two who fit these profiles, it’s up to you to decide whether they can be coached to improve, or whether they’re simply working the wrong shift, the wrong team or the wrong job.

Negative Nelly

Nelly is polite, pleasant and happy in the interview. You hire her believing that she’s one of the nicest people you’ve met and that she will make your center even better than it is today.

Then training starts and you see Nelly’s other side. She starts to complain. Her chair is uncomfortable, the screen is too small, the trainer is going too fast or too slow, or doesn’t explain things in a way that people can understand. She goes on break with other trainees and suddenly they’re all complaining. In just a few hours, her attitude has spread like wildfire.

Nelly is a master of propaganda. She makes friends and followers by pulling them into her negative worldview and then dominating them. Employees like Nelly may actually perform acceptable customer service because they understand how to act nice when someone’s watching. If they are constantly monitored, their darker, critical side may stay hidden. However, in their free time, they can negatively influence their co-workers unless there is a very strong and positive culture.

The “Friend”

Genuinely nice, friendly people are great to have on your team, but not if they have faulty or nonexistent filters. The Friend type of employee quickly builds trust in others. You soon believe you can tell the Friend anything, even personal or intimate details—or confidential professional information. Because they’re fun to talk to, you tend to bounce ideas off them and seek their opinion on potential ideas or changes that affect agents or even managers or upper-level staff.

It turns out that they affect other people similarly. They talk to agents, supervisors, managers, trainers and folks outside the contact center about what you say and what they hear from anywhere. Why? They like to know what’s happening before it happens. They like to “be the expert” and communications hub for as many people as possible. Without a good filter or professional restraint, they also take theories, thoughts and ideas that you shared and spread their own version. Like a game of “Telephone,” their versions may be exaggerated or misspoken or plain wrong. People get riled up and drama ensues.

The Friend isn’t necessarily someone with bad intentions, but they love people, love to talk, and love the attention that comes with knowing (and telling) secrets. Coachable? Your call.

“I’m Offended”

Everyone has sensitive and reserved agents who force you to walk on eggshells around them. They may cry easily or be easily offended. These folks aren’t necessarily all problematic, in fact, many are amazing agents.

However, an extreme version of this profile is actively looking for drama and thrives on being victimized. They are the ones who feel like everyone is against them. They spread an us-versus-them mentality to their colleagues. They feel persecuted and therefore entitled to special treatment; they may become an HR nightmare—and bring others with them. Approach with caution.

A Case of Supervisor “Poison”

It’s always a challenge to know that you’re promoting and hiring the best supervisors and coaches. Have you ever hired a frontline leader and later find that their whole team has become a problem? This could be a result of what I call Supervisor Poison.

In this case, it’s the supervisor who engages in negativity. It’s the supervisor who is promoting an us-versus-them mentality with the agents in order to gain their trust and friendship. It’s the supervisor creating inappropriate closeness to manipulate their team.

Instead of strengthening their agents’ bonds with the organization, they are building a sub-culture of mutual dependence and unprofessionalism. Worse than the random negative employee, it’s these types of supervisors who will bring your center down the fastest.
Now that you know some of the biggest offenders, how can you stamp out poison and drama in your center? These steps might make your quest a bit easier.

4 Steps to Defeating Drama and Poison

1. Communication

I have developed and conducted many comprehensive employee surveys, both in my consulting career as well as my contact center leadership career. One thing resonates across every company: Communication should be better.

Successful communication doesn’t just happen. It needs to be planned. Creating communication plans and policies protect your organization and your leadership role.

Timing Matters

Releasing communications before they’re ready is nearly as bad as not communicating at all. Don’t sit on information that affects agents and don’t let important news trickle out. Instead, plan to inform your teams with timely information they can trust, and they will trust you. By doing this, you will eliminate many of the misunderstandings that result in drama and poison your contact center.

No time to plan? If something is urgent and unexpected, speed is a must. Get out and communicate what is true to your team. If it contradicts an earlier communication, acknowledge the miscommunication and provide your team with the knowledge they need.

Nature—and drama—loves a vacuum. People who don’t understand what’s happening will eventually make up their own scenarios, spinning the narrative in whichever way causes the most excitement. This is never helpful to the organization or to you as a leader. If your team doesn’t trust you to tell them what they need to know, they won’t hesitate to leave you for another opportunity.

2. Real-Time Redirects

Minor misunderstandings have a way of blowing up way out of proportion. When an employee approaches you with what they see as a serious issue (but really isn’t), don’t dismiss or downplay it. Their emotional response is real and needs to be heard. A better way to proceed is:

  • First, listen and understand what they believe to be the truth.
  • Repeat it back to them so that they know you heard them.
  • Then, provide patient guidance on how they can see the information from a different perspective.

This is especially important for your frontline leadership and your supervisors. They can get caught up in their own or their agents’ negativity and they need coaching to redirect the negative energy into a positive. If you ignore these small things, they can grow like weeds. To be effective, your frontline supervisors must learn to engage in these difficult conversations and defuse them quickly.

3. Voice of the Agent

Employee engagement programs can take a serious bite out of negative energy and drama in your contact center. I endorse agent-based Voice of the Agent programs. In the centers I run, five to eight agents meet once a month to discuss the good and bad things happening in the center. They report that feedback to the senior leadership, who in turn are tasked with developing solutions.

In most situations the Voice of the Agent teams come up with both the problems and the solutions, and the leadership just needs to implement them. Voice of the Agent is an agent-empowering, performance-enhancing, cost-effective and underrated employee engagement tool that every call center should use.

4. Incentive Committee

There’s nothing like jealousy and envy to grow drama. When there is transparency and accountability, these weeds don’t grow as well. To prevent any feelings that incentives are not fairly distributed or other perceived injustices, I like using an incentive committee.

Like the Voice of the Agent program, the incentive committee is made up of agents. They are provided a budget every month and use it for any incentive program they choose. They decide what motivates them and their colleagues to be the best and happiest employees. This is another agent-empowering and cost-effective solution to drama in your center.

You can’t control every occurrence of drama and poison among your employees, but you can control how you respond to them. Communication, engagement and coaching are our strongest weapons in the fight for happy employees, high performance, and satisfied customers.