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How to support your customer service staff during the cost-of-living crisis

The pressure on customers is well-documented, but service staff need the full support of their business and guidance from their leaders during these difficult times too.

The harsh reality of working within a customer-facing role is the abuse you may receive, sometimes on a daily basis. Physical or verbal abuse towards shop workers and call centre agents has long been an issue plaguing those in customer service roles, but during the pandemic, the number of incidents increased significantly. 

With customers stuck at home, call queues becoming longer and many people struggling financially as a result of COVID-19, workers experienced the brunt of this frustration. The Institute of Customer Service revealed that in 2021, 60% of customer-service workers experienced hostility across the year, ranging from shouting and swearing to racial abuse, death threats, spitting and physical attacks.  

As businesses get into the swing of 2022, abuse to customer-facing staff cannot fall under the radar. With energy prices soaring in April and the nation already gripped in a cost-of-living crisis that is causing anxiety for people up and down the country, abuse and hostility will likely rise further for the workers on the receiving end.  

The cost-of-living crisis will already be putting unreported pressure on customer service workers who are dealing with angry or upsetting calls about rising costs. These employees are the forgotten workers of this crisis and in the coming months action needs to be taken to protect them long-term, not just during high periods of stress.  

This won’t be an easy fix, but the industry needs sustained commitments through initiatives, tools and policies that demonstrably support these workers’ wellbeing. 

Protecting your workers’ wellbeing

Many customer-facing workers are reporting that their organisations have policies to try and help support their mental health. Yet our research revealed that whilst nearly all workers know about these mental health policies, just 32% said their leaders and managers follow them ‘all the time’. This suggests that while policies have been created, more could be done to ensure they are being implemented across the board. 

There is no longer room for complacency here, businesses need to transform their working practices to put the wellbeing of frontline customer service staff at the heart of everything they do.  

Actively promoting the wellbeing of these workers and ensuring this forms part of your organisation’s culture is key. Whether you’re working from home or back in the office, one thing you should consider is encouraging staff to take regular breaks between calls or busy periods and setting up frequent check-ins to allow your teams room to breathe and break up busy workloads. Training managers to identify early signs of burnout and providing mental health support is key to help improve staff wellbeing before it’s too late. 

Another way of improving morale is by championing the value they bring to the business and the softer skills they possess. Customer-serving workers are extremely skilled and celebrating their accomplishments as well as showing them a clear path to progression will help them see their job as fulfilling and a long-term career.  

This isn’t just the moral thing to do. Putting employees’ mental health, wellbeing and development first means happy customers will follow. After all, you can’t have great customer experience without happy and engaged employees.  

Rebalancing employee experience with customer satisfaction   

It’s clear that, especially in the struggle for business survival during the pandemic, companies have been used to putting the customer first. Businesses have long operated in this way, rules such as ‘the customer comes first’ and the ‘customer is always right’ have defined businesses for years. Obviously, this is simple business sense and will help drive revenue, loyalty and growth. It’s therefore easy to fall into the trap of constantly prioritising customers. However, if businesses don’t urgently fix the balance between customer satisfaction levels and investment in staff wellbeing, we will all suffer. 

This year employee experience must become just as important as the customer experience. As prices continue to soar, many businesses will be focused on keeping their customers happy but considering the needs of your employees goes hand-in-hand with this. It isn’t a case of choosing between the customer or your employees, it’s focusing on how these elements work together in tandem. Making sure your employees have the tools and the support in place to deliver excellent customer service will ensure your staff aren’t burned out and your business thrives. 

Tech support  

Many organisations have already invested in specialist customer engagement technology to help customer-facing workers do their job to a high standard. This extra support is now more important than ever to reduce burdening workloads. 

Automating responses to simple queries and repetitive tasks can be instrumental in protecting workers from frustration and burnout. Using automation at early points in your customer journeys, through features such as chatbots, can help remove mundane tasks and make agents’ lives infinitely easier. 

This will ensure that employees mainly deal with high-level and complex interactions which demonstrate real business value, which is more likely to deliver job satisfaction. At the same time, chatbots can dramatically improve a customer’s experience by providing quick and easy answers to simple questions. 

Automating quality assurance is another example of technology being used to improve employee experience. Rather than managers trawling through hours of call recordings to check how workers are performing, speech analytics can automate the process by flagging calls with certain trigger words or negative sentiment. Managers are then able to hone in on these specific calls to provide further training or spot when employees might be facing a high volume of angry, abusive calls.  

In the coming months, employee wellbeing must become more than ticking boxes or window dressing. Customer-facing workers are already at breaking point after months of being overworked and underappreciated.

The reality is 72% of customer-facing workers say they are ‘burnt out’ or will be burnt out imminently, rising to 83% of those working in contact centres. Businesses must act now to support these workers who are on the verge of collapse and could be tipped over as a result of the extra pressures of the cost-of-living crisis.

Customer-facing staff are the cornerstone of every good business, let’s give them the support they deserve. 

This blog was written by Ben Booth, CEO of MaxContact, for mycustomer.com. View the original piece here.

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