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What Contact Center Agents and Runners Have in Common

Working in a contact center is a lot more like running than you might think. The demands placed on contact center agents can often make it feel like you and your team are running a marathon – and often at a sprint pace!  This is not sustainable and is a surefire way to cause agent burnout. Both running and working in a contact center have a high risk of burnout. Running is intense and physically demanding on a body.

Similarly, working in a contact center is intense and mentally and emotionally demanding. This burnout danger in both worlds leads to cranky or lethargic people, giving up, doing little more than status quo, and infecting those around them.  A contact center leader should be like a good running coach – one who helps agents find constructive ways to handle their stress and mitigate burnout.

Runner

Plenty of running publications have written about burnout, and many of the same principles apply in the Contact Center setting too. Let's look at strategies that runners use to prevent burnout:

1)    Understand "The Why." 

Runners almost always have a reason for logging the miles each week, and it's not because someone is chasing them. Whether they are working diligently toward a Boston Marathon qualifying time or pursuing the runner's high, there's almost always a good reason that keeps them motivated - even on the worst of days.

This is also true in the contact center. Yes, most agents are at work for the paycheck, but there is almost certainly another more intrinsic "why." Some agents may feel dedicated to your company's mission or values, and other agents may be building professional experience as they work toward the next step in their careers. Some agents may use their current job to fund a side hustle/hobby, and others are there because they genuinely love what they do. Figure out "the why" for each of your agents and anchor back to that when the days are rough. A greater sense of purpose will help keep things in perspective and enable agents to slog through their support tickets just like runners continue to slog through the miles.

2)    Mix it Up!

Sometimes burnout can be mitigated by changing it up. This could mean completely changing a goal or just switching up the daily routine. Perhaps a runner is growing tired of the same method of training for half marathons. Joining a friend for a trail race could be a much-needed change of pace.

Agents in a contact center can benefit from the occasional deviation from the norm, too. Perhaps your agents are taking a beating from customers on the phone and could use a break. Consider asking them to handle a different channel, like chat, or allowing them to do QA work. Or, instead of daily productivity goals, focus on something that's not performance related, like the number of customers who offer an unsolicited "thank you," or something similar.

3)    Give!

This is one of my favorite strategies for overcoming burnout. Helping someone else achieve their goals is an inspirational way to recharge. Runners can pace someone toward their goal (i.e., run alongside them at their race pace) or cheer them on, from the sidelines. This simple gesture often gives runners the motivation to dive back into their own miles!

In the contact center, you can do this too!  There are plenty of ways agents can give to the team. For example, an agent could spend some time helping a new agent learn how to handle tickets or spend some time QA'ing tickets, focusing only on positive feedback. We all need more positive vibes in our lives, right?

Of course, the giving does not need to be constrained to just the contact center. For example, the contact center could treat another department to breakfast or an ice cream break. Or, agents could get involved with a charity as another way of giving. What other ideas do you have about giving in the contact center? I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

4)    Practice Self-Compassion. 

Runners have good and bad days. For instance, some workouts and races go well and make them feel invincible, yet other workouts leave them frustrated, full of doubt, and questioning their ability. 

Contact center agents also experience good and bad days. Sometimes the volume of tickets is exceptionally high, but the pressure to maintain a high level of customer satisfaction remains – along with achieving service level objectives, resolving tickets on the first call, and more. Stress can be a gift that pushes us forward, but it's important to remember that in more of our contact centers, we're helping customers, not saving lives. Sometimes it's essential to chill out!  When there is an influx of ticket volume, and your team cannot get through all of them by the end of the day, it can be ok let the remaining tickets wait until the next day when agents' minds are fresh and their energy levels high. (There are, of course, times when this is not recommended, so use your best judgment!)  The lesson is that you should not be too hard on yourself because it only raises the pressure and propels you toward burnout. It's important to remember that we are loved by family and friends, despite the number of running miles we've logged or tickets we've resolved. 

It takes conscious effort to keep a positive outlook and practice self-compassion, even on the bad days. I recently added some mindfulness techniques to my toolset. Now, when things get tough, I pause, take a few deep breaths and think of someone who makes me smile on each exhale. Try this, and you'll soon be smiling too. You can't help but feel more centered and compassionate by the end of this exercise! 

5)    Build in time to recover. 

Smart runners aren't going full speed with each workout every day. That's because research indicates the recovery is just as important as the hard work. Training smart is the name of the game. It's about knowing when to hammer and when to back off, listening to your body, and being consistent.

No one can sustain crazy, not even your amazing contact center agents. Therefore, it's important to take small breaks throughout the day, and some longer, more sustained breaks throughout the year (hello, vacation!). Daily, encourage agents togo for a walk, sit outside for a few minutes, or even visit a nearby driving range to let go of the stress. They should also get away from their desks at lunchtime. Similarly, encourage agents to use all their paid time off, even if it's just for a staycation. Companies offer paid time off for a good reason – to prevent burnout and allow agents time to recharge. Sadly, it's become somewhat glamorous not to take all the time off earned, but it doesn't have to be this way!

By leveraging some of the same strategies as runners, you'll be a good coach, helping your contact center agents, manage their stress, avoid burnout, and keep them performing highly. 

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