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Inside Outsourced: Anger Management

As we join the call center this week, everyone is getting ready for Valentine’s Day. Though Rajiv complains how his colleagues have bought into this American holiday, his icy exterior soon melts when he receives flowers from his girlfriend. As for Manmeet, he finds himself schedule for two virtual dates on the same night. And while everyone else is excited about the holiday, one agent isn’t feeling the love.

Gupta makes quite a scene in the call center when he yells at a customer and hangs up. (Perhaps he could benefit from ICMI's course on dealing with difficult customers.) Thanks to this incident, the whole team has to watch a corporate training video on anger management. Since the video proves to be ineffective, Todd takes matters into his own hands. He gets on the phone and tests each agent by pretending to be an annoying customer. When it’s Gupta’s turn, he’s about to lose it but soon regains his composure and handles the practice call professionally.

Unfortunately, Gupta’s lesson was short lived. We soon see him screaming at a customer to shut up before knocking the phone onto the floor. Though Rajiv thinks he should be fired on the spot, Todd decides to suspend him for a week instead. After a prolonged goodbye, which included unanswered hints to his fellow agents to defend him, Gupta finally leaves. However, he shows up again in the lunchroom later on. Once again, Todd dismisses him.

On his way home from work, Todd stumbles upon Gupta sitting in an alleyway. Gupta explains that since he’s not getting paid for the week, he can’t afford his rent and his landlord kicked him out. He then makes Todd feel so guilty that he reluctantly agrees to let Gupta stay at his place.

The next day, Rajiv and Todd listen to the recording of Gupta’s call in order to file an incident report. Todd notices that Gupta sounded angry right from the beginning of the call. So he plays the call before that one, which turns out to be Gupta’s mother. We hear her telling Gupta that his sister’s future parents-in-law were staying with them for the week, and she wanted Gupta out of the house so he wouldn’t embarrass the family.

Now that he understands why Gupta was so upset (and taking his frustration out on his customers), Todd goes home to talk to him. He tells Gupta that he listened to the call, and sees where he’s coming from. Gupta admits that he lied about having an apartment; he just didn’t want to admit that his mother kicked him out for the week. Since Gupta says he can’t disrespect his parents, Todd convinces him to at least move out by himself.

So Gupta does just that – only, the place he found is right above Todd’s apartment. So now Todd will be seeing (and hearing) a lot more of Gupta. Think he’ll have second thoughts about helping him out?

While that question is pretty easy to figure out, this episode brought up some other questions, like how to deal with difficult customers and how to balance work with your personal life.  To help us out, here is ICMI's panel of experts, Jean Bave-Kerwin, Paul Pope and Rose Polchin.

Q. Gupta had some frustration in his personal life, which showed through in his work performance. What advice would you give Gupta on learning to separate his personal life from his work life?

Paul: Everyone has bad days; you and your customers. You need to find ways to identify when you’re getting near your breaking point, and then take steps to calm yourself. Remember to breath! Attend some stress management training, such as ICMI’s virtual classroom session, Contact Center Stress Management: Signs, Symptoms, and Solutions available on-demand.

Jean: Poor Gupta – so many people share this issue! When I talk to agents about customer service skills, I let them know that everyone has issues that may affect how they feel during the day. They may have had a difficult morning getting the kids out the door, or may be worrying about finances or about caring for an elderly parent. These fears and concerns are normal for us as human beings and difficult to leave behind. I tell agents that they don’t have a choice about how they feel about something going on in their lives, but they do have a choice about how they respond to these feelings.

An example is that you may feel really angry with someone about something they said, but most of the time you’ll choose not to, say, punch him out! (Let’s hope that’s how you choose, anyway!) Part of being an adult is choosing how you’ll respond to the occurrences in your life. And we need to be especially aware of those choices when we deal with customers, who don’t know (and don’t really care) what we’re going through.

So, agents can’t choose how they feel on any given day, but they can choose how they act, and the expectation of a contact center agent is that they will choose to serve customers well, in a pleasant manner and with professionalism. In my opinion, agents don’t have to feel like doing this in order to actually carry it out…the important thing is to act so that customers believe you are delivering the best service possible, regardless of what’s going on in their life.

Q. Todd opted to use role-playing as a way to train his agents on how to deal with difficult customers. What other creative training methods would you suggest?

Jean: I like to have agents give each other advice on how to handle difficult customers (assuming that there’s a competent facilitator present who can mitigate the sometimes unhelpful advice of other agents!). Some of them use job aids, some of them use daily centering sessions (“As I sit down to log in, I think about how customers need me to be present for them”), or a personal mantra (one of my favorites is, “The more upset they get, the more professional I get”).

Q. Are there any tips you would give to call center agents on how to avoid pulling a Gupta when dealing with difficult customers?

Paul: A. I have three suggestions; (a) Try thinking in terms of treating each customer interaction as a carefully rehearsed play. You have a part to play, so use that as a way to detach your personal feelings from the situation. (b) Learn better call control techniques, and practice them in training sessions. (c) Make a list of common questions and responses, and keep it close by so you can refer to it in sticky situations.

Jean: You can’t control how you feel; you can control how you act. Remember, just as the customer doesn’t know what’s going on in your life, you don’t know what they’re dealing with in their life. The customer is under no professional obligation not to let these feelings interfere with personal interactions, but you are! Give difficult customers the benefit of the doubt, and understand that it’s not about you. Unless you were not providing good customer service, it’s not about you.

Rose: The nature of any customer service professional requires that you sometimes have to deal with individuals who are rude, frustrated, confused, angry and sometimes happy, pleasant, grateful and appreciative. What that means is that you never know what you might get until you say your greeting and the call begins. This “unknown” in and of itself can create stress. When coupled with stressors that are caused by external factors, well, that could be the recipe for disaster.

Most of us who have been in this situation know that in a perfect world we would be able to deal with internal and external stressors with ease and not have one impact the other. In the real world, though, stress can get the best of us at times.

The first suggestion is to: Be self-aware (and if need be, have a trusted friend or co-worker be your “mirror”). Know your “triggers” that causes you stress both inside and outside work. And if you are having trouble identifying them here are some potential signs that you are letting stress get the best of you. It could be any one or more of the following:

  • Headache
  • Neck ache and shoulder tightness
  • Dreading that “beep” of that signals the next call
  • Anger
  • Being curt or short with customers or co-workers
  • Strained or pitched tone of voice
  • Raising your voice
  • Tightening your jaw
  • And there are more…but these are the most common

Ok, now you know you are stressed, what can you do about it. Remember, a lot of managing stress comes from understanding that you always have choices. We can choose to take the actions we can to manage our stress. So when faced with stress it is not only deciding what you can do about stress. It is also about deciding what you will do about managing stress.

There are any number of stress reduction/management techniques out there and these next few ideas come from a list of over 90 in ICMI’s 90 Ideas for Revitalizing and Energizing Yourself: Suggested Activities to help you Manage Stress.

  • You can strengthen your body and learn to relax. An easy one to do at your desk is to: Tense and release. Tense and release different parts of your body and breathe deeply for 5 seconds. Start with your arms, then straighten your legs and point your toes straight out in front of you so that your calf and thigh muscles are tensed. Hold this for 5 seconds and slowly release. Continue this with neck, shoulders…
  • Organize your work and home environment- de-clutter, clean up so that you can quickly and easily find what you need.
  • Exercise and eat right. Yes, you’ve heard it before! Keep hydrated. You are talking all day and those vocal chords need water!
  • Find a calming picture or screen saver (studies show looking a fish swimming can be very calming.

Choose your mood. You are in control and can choose to have a great day or not! And remember, just because you had a bad morning doesn’t mean the rest of the day can’t or won’t be great!