Unpaid Counseling in Times of Crisis
Unpaid Counseling in Times of Crisis 11/5/2001
By Donna Fluss
Call centers are the central nervous system of businesses. They are the focal point for customer interactions and the voices of their companies. But during natural and unnatural disasters, call centers often play an unappreciated but critical role in calming the public.
Because call center representatives are an invisible and often sympathetic ear and voice, and someone the caller is unlikely to meet, customers are not shy about sharing their thoughts, many of which are not related to business.
The numbers make the point.
In times of crisis, call center volumes can increase by 20% to 50%, with no business reasons to explain the increase. The average call length can increase from 25% to 100%, as many callers initially ask about business issues and then talk about personal concerns. For example, callers may ask a call center representative about their reaction to the World Trade Center attack, as an opening for them to share their own concerns.
Unexpected jumps in call volume and average talk times will have a negative effect on a center’s ability to answer calls on a timely basis. This puts stress on representatives who are dedicated to providing quality service.
The stress is exacerbated when callers take out their anger and frustration on agents, who are trained not to respond in kind. In times of trouble, call centers can feel less like a business operation than a mental health facility where scream therapy is common.
The best response is for agents to listen, not respond in kind or cut the caller off. Of course, if the caller becomes abusive, the agent should transfer the call to a supervisor. In the extreme case, a caller who curses a representative should be disconnected. (If a customer threatens an agent, the threat should be taken seriously and emergency procedures followed.)
People cannot be prevented from calling and sharing even the most outrageous thoughts. But representatives need to be trained in the proper techniques to deal with these situations, before they happen.
New agent or introductory training classes should have a standard stress and anger management module to help teach representatives how to manage difficult customers. Training programs should also include a communications module that helps agents gently and politely shift callers from inappropriate topics to ones agents can address.
When a crisis occurs, call center management, and its training organization, should immediately prepare agents for the onslaught of calls by giving them written question-and-answer documents listing the anticipated issues. The answers need to be politically correct and keep the organization away from non-business issues. The prepared answers should be polite but firm enough to move customers back to business issues. You can’t control crisis-related calling, but you can manage the response.