Published: January 24, 2017 | Comments
Serving customers and solving their problems is hard work. It may not be physically labor intensive or break your back, but it is mentally taxing and it can break one’s spirit. Helping customer service professionals navigate the potential for emotional wear and tear can revolutionize a contact center. As leaders, we spend so much of our time making sure that our agents have the right tools to do their jobs. Well, there is a new tool in town that everyone needs to consider.
Mindfulness has been fashionable for some time now and it was only a matter of time before it found its way into the corporate world. Companies like Ford, Target, Aetna and Google have adopted mindfulness programs for their employees and the results are overwhelmingly positive from every perspective.
The concept of mindfulness in the workplace was first introduced for leadership teams, and has been widely accepted for a while now. A Harvard Business Review study of leaders practicing mindfulness concluded that they were impacted positively in a number of ways. Full disclosure: the study proved that without a doubt, the degree to which mindfulness can improve performance and quality of life is directly proportionate to how involved the subject is. You’ve gotta play to win, if you will.
A few of the key successes in the HBR study are universal and impact performance we would all love to see improve in our customer service staff. Proven benefits from this study include:
- Becoming less reactive and more responsive - How many times have you tried to train agents to “listen to understand”? Core to that skill is the curbing of our natural instinct to react, especially when someone is presenting us with a problem. The benefit of being able to regulate emotions and focus clearly on the problem at hand enhances the ability to empathize as well.
- Increased resiliency - We have all seen agents have one bad call that throws them off for the rest of the day. Not being able to shake off a tough call can taint any number of subsequent ones. Ideally, we want agents to “reset” after a challenging call and carry over little or no effect from the previous call. Mindful breathing is a tool that can help them achieve just that.
- Focus - Recent studies show that call center agents are maneuvering through as many as six or seven different software programs to find answers and solutions for your customers. Solving an issue for a customer can be likened to spinning plates in a circus act. That balancing act can breed frustration that agents may try to mask, but regardless, it is felt by your customers. When they are able to clear their minds and create pinpoint focus, many of the KPIs you are watching will improve. Traversing the how, when and where to access the right information becomes more fluid. Naturally, the plate spinning frustration will decrease.
The techniques used in a mindfulness practice are not just for your leadership team anymore. The benefits, especially in a high pressure setting like a call center, are endless. I have found some surprising benefits. Early in 2016 I did case study with a marketing firm in Indiana. They had a small OB call center tasked with setting appointments for their outside sales team. Within 48 hours of the first workshop, after simply learning mindful breathing techniques, we saw an increase in productivity. By the end of week one, productivity increased by 17% and they have maintained that standard. I didn’t realize at the time how dramatically their retention rate would be affected. Their previous retention was dismal at just over 34% for the classes brought in in 2015 and 2016. Only one out of three agents hired didn’t last. Many didn’t make it through training or get to the six month mark on the floor. Coincidentally, a new class completed training and joined the group just when the mindfulness workshop began. That class, eight months later has a retention rate over 60%. In addition to being able to handle the stresses of the job, these agents and their colleagues feel appreciated just because the workshop was even provided at all. They not only do they feel validated, but also their contribution is affirmed and they see its importance. More than half of the team reported using the techniques at home and benefiting there as well.
There are many spokes in the wheel when creating a positive culture to address issues like retention, burnout and poor performance. Introducing mindfulness techniques is one spoke in that wheel. There are a few things to remember if you are deciding to introduce the concept in your call center:
- Not all agents will take to it. Some will flat out not participate, and that is ok. Remember that agents are people, and people respond in different ways to different things. If only half of the team takes the tools and uses them, then that is still a win. Keep exploring ideas to reach the others.
- At face value, it may seem counterproductive. The thought of giving agents any time off the phone can seem blasphemous! Mindfulness can be incorporated into their day without much or any additional down time. And the truth is that when you study the big picture, the rewards and payback can outweigh any drawbacks. Higher retention rates, shorter call times, increased first time resolution and overall happier customers and employees are priceless. Perhaps start with how agents can incorporate the practice into their daily schedules as they are. You don’t have to provide additional DND time if you are not inclined to do so.
- Even the simplest, smallest efforts will have a positive impact. There is no need to convert everyone to Buddhism or meditate on a mountain in Tibet for a year; success is not reserved for only those who make major changes. The beauty of mindfulness is that any and all strides you make will have a positive impact. If the only thing you introduce is mindful breathing, that’s great! And there is no downside. Everyone can benefit from this simple technique and the more they practice, the more they get out of it.
- Seek buy in from all leadership. It will be important for them to not only be on board but promoting the tools to the agents. They should be reminding agents to take a few minutes before they come back from a break, helping them remember that they can control their emotions after a tough call or even incorporating exercises into team meetings and training. If your leadership team isn’t willing to support it, then you may not even want to put it out there for agents. Like anything, they are looking to us as an example.
- Be ready to support and encourage agents to expand their practices on their own. Inspire them to form groups and help one another learn more. Provide them a safe space, like a conference room to get together and discuss what they are learning and discovering, or a quiet room if they would like to meet to practice meditation. If someone expresses the desire to lead a group and take charge, you should encourage, support and recognize them for that effort.
My advice to companies looking to introduce mindfulness techniques in their contact center culture is simple: start small but cultivate it and tend to it so it grows. A simple breathing workshop that includes tips for assimilating it into their day is a good start. One small step for your contact center, one giant leap for your entire company!
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