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“How to manage better aggressive callers in a call center?”, Sarah Boujendar

*This story was originally published on RelationClientmag by Stéphanie Marius

To which extent are employees impacted by clients’ aggressiveness in terms of health and performance? How to accompany them? This is the subject of Sarah Boujendar’s Ph. D. thesis, which declares that one out of seven French employees have suffered a verbal aggression from a client.

To which extent has the current health crises increased the number of verbal aggressions against call center agents?

The context is stressful. There is no doubt, people have a lot of uncertainty. They are afraid of their health and job. A lot of them are in lockdown. These circumstances favor their aggressiveness. Clients can raise the voice against a call center agent without even being conscious about it, or in any case, have the tendency to minimize the impact of their words and feel they have the right to get angry. The situation is more difficult, as agents within a call center are themselves stressed since they are isolated at their homes or, on the contrary, are forced to go out notwithstanding the lockdown. They are, as well, less tolerant, which can increase the tension.

Which is the advice to be given to call center agents as well as to its supervisor to reduce the impact of unpoliteness and face them?

My research clearly shows the negative effects of verbal aggression by clients in the well-being of call center agents and its performance, assessed with objective metrics. This aggression cannot, evidently, be totally erased. The companies of the sector should live with it. But certain strategies and tactics reduce their impact. The supervisors have a key role. They can provide emotional support: debriefing after a chaotic episode, listen to the agent, provide advice. In certain situations, they can take by themselves the phone call with a particularly aggressive client. In general, supervisors should not hesitate to allow a worker to take a break, even unplanned, following a difficult interaction or to encourage them to carry out administrative tasks for a moment before taking new calls. They could also establish team dynamics by inviting employees to share their experiences with their colleagues. Finally, it is important to design a clear procedure that specifies how to treat difficult clients, including the possibility to finish the call courteously.

To which extent the uncourteous behavior of clients influences over the turnover rate of companies? Does the number vary between France and Morocco?

It is difficult to attribute the turnover rate exclusively to clients’ unpoliteness or a verbal aggression. Nevertheless, this does not imply that it could be an element that rushes the departure. During my immersions in call centers, I was able to watch agents to brake following a harmful incident (to fall into tears or event to leave the job the same day and never return). For sensitive persons, it constitutes a decisive element that makes them take the decision to leave the job, especially for those who do not feel the support of the organization. Regarding the figures, it is estimated that the annual turnover rate within a call center is between 18% to 25% depending on the economic sector. Such figures do not vary significantly among countries (particularly between France and Morocco), but they do so among companies, according to their practices or the labor environment provided to their workers.

Can you list examples of outsourcing companies putting in place good working practices?

Several outsourcing companies especially look to improve their employees’ well-being, which helps them to better resist daily clients’ aggressiveness. Teletech Campus, for example, has invested in an innovative architecture with very diversified features. Its premises look more like a campus than a traditional call center. Collaborators have high-end technological tools. The quality of life at work and the well-being are promoted intentionally by the company to create loyalty among its employees. But there is a Moroccan company, which attracted me the most. Comdata Group Maroc, elected in 2019 for the second year in a row as the “Best place to work in Africa”, the axis of its strategy is based on the development of its employees. A Chief of Happiness was hired. All year long, collaborators can register for free ludic, sports, creative or relaxing workshops and be involved in social projects. Weekly meetings are organized among top management and collaborators to discuss their worries. The company relies on training. Internal communication is very strong, with plenty of events, particularly in times of crisis (through different channels and notably through social media). Recognition and value create among employees a feeling of security. That helps them to show empathy vis-à-vis clients and recover easily following a harmful incident. These last weeks we have witnessed the reinforcement or implementation of work-from-home. How does social distancing contribute to the management of unpolite calls by a call center agent? How can we improve this situation? Except for remote work, a lot of activities are not being performed. I think of banks, especially. It is a risky situation. The phone, in effect, allows a client to express more freely and openly than in a face-to-face interaction. In a context of strong economic uncertainty, where financial difficulties are multiplied, the client, far away from the eyes of the agent, can unrepress and adopt a more aggressive behavior than in a meeting. This may lead to excess against the employee, which becomes particularly vulnerable working-from-home and, being less supported by the organization.

To improve the situation, work-from-home employees should be better equipped on technical aspects, to facilitate to them its task and allow them to answer better to job requests. But, most of all, its autonomous decision capability must be increased. Usually, employees are limited to follow scripts, giving rise to unnatural interactions with clients. Sharing experiences through blogs, forums or intranet may help employees to feel less isolated and increase their skills. Likewise, it is desirable to organize more ongoing relationships among employees and clients. This will allow to create a relationship of confidence and reduce the tension related to specific interactions between individuals that do not know each other. To act directly over the behavior of clients also constitutes a viable way of improvement. It is difficult to avoid that a client becomes angry, shouts, and hangs out. But it is possible to firmly remind him of the basic social rules of life. Certain companies will simply “fire” a client that mistreats their workers (e.g. Southwest Airlines, Service-Gruppen, Sprint Nextel) evidencing that the company does not support such behaviors.

Which training can help call center agents over these points?

It is very useful to train operators in strategies that allow them to be empathic, able to listen to the client, always keeping, at the same time, the control over the conversation. Specific training will also allow employees to approach better aggressive reactions. Such training also contributes to reduce the probability that such aggressivity happens again. Organizations such as Cegos, CNFCE or even Orsy propose thematic meetings over the subject, named as “Handle aggressions and unpoliteness of clients”, “How to manage your emotions?”, “How to calm down the stakes and face difficult situations?”, ”How to soothe oneself after a difficult situation”, How to succeed to stabilize your emotions”, etc. Other types of

training implemented within the organization can help employees to prepare and face better verbal aggression. Training into mindfulness meditation is equally valuable to allow employees to avoid negative thoughts, ruminating cycles that affect cognitive resources after aggressions.

Which are the differences between managing unpolite actions over the phone than over a written channel? Same for synchronic and non-synchronic channels?

Whichever is the channel, it is important to allow employees to identify clients with aggressive behavior. Once a client is identified as such, the software handling the calls may generate an alert as “at risk”, so the worker is prepared to face such uncourteous client. The same software can also transfer the phone call directly to a call center agent or a supervisor trained to conduct conversations in such conditions. In the event of a written relationship, a remainder message can be notified to the client, so he is invited to respect the rules of courtesy. The companies can also intervene in advance, by putting a message while the client waits for its call to be answered indicating that employees should answer clients’ request, but in return, they should be respected. Such message can also inform clients that employees are authorized to interrupt the phone call. Without a doubt, this approach can be adjusted to the context of each call center. In any event, by showing through strong actions that the organization does not consent clients’ aggressiveness, other companies of the sector could be inspired. If each conversation is registered, it is possible to imagine a return-call procedure by an authorized person or, at least, to send an email reminding the client of the rules of good behavior and the Laws.

Methodology of the investigation carried out by Sarah Boudejar:

Around 250,000 French employees are currently working in call centers, which is around 1% of the active economic population that attempts to sell products and services by phone or answer claims. How do they bear critics, recriminations or even insults by consumers? To understand and assess them, Sarah Boujendar has questioned daily during 10 days to 150 employees over three different working structures, public and private, in France and as well in Morocco, where a significant part of the sector has opened call centers. The young investigator explained: “The workers should indicate to me daily over a scale from 1 to 7, the level of verbal aggressiveness that they have suffered during the day and their emotional and cognitive state at the end of each working day that I will remeasure the next morning before they start to work. Then, I cross-referenced such data with their estimated daily performance measured according to objective metrics”.

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