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Training Agents to Handle Difficult Interactions

Ah, the life of a call center agent. It's a cushy job, right? Agents talk to customers on the phone and punch some information into a keyboard. Easy enough!

But wait a minute, there's more. Much more.

Contact center employees get to sit in a cramped cubicle wearing a scratchy headset and stare at a screen for 8 hours a day. After a few weeks, they may start looking for an ergonomic pad to cushion the small of their back - which has suddenly begun to ache (maybe it's all the sitting?).

Stressed out agents

Next comes the shoulder pain, the neck pain, and feeling trapped in a never-ending cycle of discomfort and overbearing management. And we haven't even discussed the complaining customers!

Oh, and that great new haircut? Don't bother. The headset ruins it each day.

Whatever happened to that cushy job? Well, it's still there, just hidden behind a mindset of complacency.

When the challenges of your job feel more numerous than the benefits, it's easy to become downtrodden and only focus the negatives of a position. And let's face it. Working in customer service can be stressful!

I've been in the customer service industry in one form or another for most of my career and learned a sure-fire way to deal with the different interactions we face each day. The key: be an actor!

Whether we realize it or not, we're all actors each day. Here's an example:

When a pretty girl walks past a single guy, he immediately sucks in his stomach and stands tall. It's like magic. Why does he do this? He wants to look his best. He's acting.

Call center agents must take a similar role when faced with difficult interactions with customers.

An actor assumes the role as needed - the villain, the hero, or in this case, the problem solver.

When training agents, too often we focus only on policy, procedures and a prescribed script. But we should follow the basic rule of service - to put yourself in the customer's shoes.

A successfully trained agent doesn't shy away from a demanding customer. He/she relishes the opportunity to solve their problem - confident they can provide a satisfactory resolution and maintain the customer for years to come.

When we believe it's an "us-against-them" situation, there can't be a positive outcome.

Most employees, especially call center agents, are already trained on the most common service skills needed such as empathy, active listening, speaking concisely and follow through (among many others). But we must be proactive in our approach to service with the understanding that many of our customer interactions will be with difficult customers.

Here are three unique skill sets we must train for to deal with these situations.

Train for Confidence

Whether they believe it or not, every agent already possesses essential customer service skills. When speaking with friends or family, agents show empathy, honesty, and flexibility. They probably also have a "backbone" and know how to avoid being taken advantage of.

Training must reinforce these skills. Successful agents understand they must take a position of authority during customer interactions, while also realizing that they're there to help and serve the customer. The ultimate goal is a satisfied customer, and center agents are the "experts" who possess the ability to make things "right."

Agents must be confident in their ability to correct any situation - failure is not an option. Confident agents know this and practice it each day on each call.

Train-away the Robot

We've all had phone conversations with a salesperson or agent and quickly realized they're reading from a script. Doesn't that annoy you? I sometimes want to jump through the phone, grab the person by the shoulders, give them a firm shake and say "Just speak to me like a we're both human beings!"

But many agents don't even realize they sound robotic. After weeks, months or years reading from a prepared service script, and speaking with an untold number of customers, they fall into this trap. Want to teach your agents to sounds more human? Training should focus on two things:

1.    Vocal Variety - the ability to vary your voice pitch, speed, and intensity to match the words used and their meaning. We do this usually each day in our conversations, but for some reason, we forget this skill when in the call center.

2.    Pauses - many dislike the natural pauses of conversation or become uncomfortable during them. But by understanding their power when used correctly, we can place extra emphasis on the resolution we provide.

Train for the Solution

The agent is the solution provider, not merely the troubleshooter. She doesn't just identify the problem and recommend the resolution; she fixes it!

Here's what has helped me during my years as a trainer and speaker - knowing could help. I had the solution. I had the knowledge. I had the experience. And I could get it done.

I knew they didn't have the exact background I had and that there was at least one piece of information, no matter how small, that could help them in their quest for improved service, morale and increased profits.

Speaking, training and presentation anxiety quickly fades when you know you can help others regardless of how difficult they may be.

When we know we are "the solution," and similar to having an abundance of confidence, there is little we can't accomplish.

There is no magic bullet when training agents to handle difficult interactions. I wish there were. But realizing the agent is the front line of service, we must provide them with the training that works and allows them to turn the customer's frown upside down.