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Expert's Angle: Don’t Give Up! How Chronic Operational Problems Can Cause CSRs to Stop Trying

Customer Support Representatives must often take the brunt of customers’ anger for chronic operational problems that are beyond their control. This can be a frustrating experience for a rep that truly cares about service but feels powerless to help their customers. Over time, it can lead to a condition psychologists call “learned helplessness” where failure is accepted as a foregone conclusion and any effort to change things is seen as futile.

In other words, CSRs simply stop trying. Consider the following scenario:

Jim was a technical support representative for a software company. You could hear the resignation in his voice as he explained that customers were usually furious because they had been on hold for so long. “We could get a better handle on wait times if the company would just hire more people or stop releasing so many software updates,” Jim said wistfully. “But they won’t listen to us, so we’re stuck dealing with all of these angry customers.”

Jim’s comments echo a sentiment common among call center representatives who experience learned helplessness. They get caught in a vicious, self-reinforcing spiral where they believe their efforts are useless, so they give less effort. Giving less effort typically results in poor service, and the resulting feedback from angry customers confirms the belief that a positive outcome is impossible.

Overcoming Learned Helplessness

Helping agents overcome learned helplessness isn’t easy, since the root cause is frequently an operational problem outside of the call center manager’s direct control.

However, a call center leader can take positive steps to combat learned helplessness by finding new ways to influence their team, other departments, and even senior leadership.

1. Influence the Team
The best way to get reps to start trying again is to convince them their actions can lead to better results. One of my favorite ways to do this is called the Circle of Influence exercise. I have CSRs think of a challenging customer or situation. Next, I ask them to draw a circle on a piece of paper where they imagine everything within the circle is within their control (such as their attitude, tone of voice, etc.) and everything outside of the circle is outside of the control (such as the customer waiting on hold for 15 minutes). Finally, I have them think of new ways to approach the problem that are within their control since repeatedly doing the same thing will likely generate the same result.

Jim, the technical support rep, might not be able to change the amount of time his customers spend on hold, but he can sincerely apologize for the delay and empathize with customers inconvenienced by a long wait. Acknowledging a customer’s anger up front lessens the chances that the customer will direct all of their anger towards Jim.

Call center leaders can help improve chronic operational problems by sharing feedback with other departments and working together on solutions. For example, many of the calls Jim received in technical support were from customers who didn’t know how to use the software’s new features.

Who could benefit from this information? The website team might want to create a searchable database of frequently asked questions to help customers answer their questions online before calling. The marketing team may decide to make a series of short how-to videos demonstrating how to use the software’s best new features. The software development team could learn how to make their next product release more intuitive for customers to learn.

3. Influence Senior Executives
Senior executives may hesitate to commit to fixing chronic operational problems if they believe the cost outweighs the benefit or they don’t believe the problem is truly significant. Smart call center managers use a two-pronged approach to convince executives to provide the resources and authority necessary to improve operations.

  • The first strategy focuses on building a business case for fixing the problem. If you want to hire more CSRs to handle a spike in calls, be prepared to demonstrate how longer hold times are costing the company money through an increase in customer churn, an increase in service costs, or some financial metric. Business leaders are more likely to spend money when you can show them a return on investment.
  • The second strategy focuses on helping executives become emotionally connected to the problem. Have them listen to angry callers, read reviews from harsh critics, or even speak with a few disgruntled customers directly. You are more likely to get executives’ full support for immediate action when customers move beyond aggregate data points and become real people.

It can be tough to be a call center leader when faced with operational problems that demotivate your employees. However, taking steps to improve results will leave your employees, and you, feeling more empowered to deliver better service.