ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


3 Practical Ways to Help Your Contact Center Agents Identify and Cope with Harassment

Some 42% of people worldwide have reported a downturn in their mental health since the pandemic started.

With so much uncertainty lingering, we’re all experiencing bouts of worry and anxiety in this weird season. Unemployment is the highest it’s been in recent memory, families and businesses are reeling from financial strain, and we’re scared about getting sick or passing the virus to a loved one.

And as the worries pile up, people are taking out their frustrations on anyone who will listen. One month after WHO declared an official pandemic, AI and machine learning company Tethr looked at more than 1 million customer service interactions to measure the impacts. In only 30 days, the number of challenging customer calls flowing into customer service teams doubled.

Your call center agents are bearing the brunt of this negative, often destructive, behavior. When we don’t have tons of places to go, our options for venting are limited. And when we’re already overwhelmed, the tiniest of problems can make the volcano erupt. On top of that, the virtual environments we’re operating in remove humanity from our conversations.

While challenging customer conversations are on the uptick, it’s important to understand the impacts on your team. It’s even more important to understand how to curb these conversations and support your agents. Let’s walk through the impacts of increased hostility in your contact center, and how you can train your team to squash abusive behaviors.

How Persistent Abuse Impacts Your Contact Center

Handling dozens of heated conversations fuels employee burnout. The impact of burnout on your agents (and your operations) stretches far beyond small manifestations of stress. Eventually, the negative side effects your agents feel from burnout may push them to leave, perpetuating turnover in your contact center.

Take steps to stop abusive customers and end the spiral of negativity that follows. Here are three ways to help:

1. Train Call Center Agents to Identify Abusive Language

We can all wish away , but unfortunately handling a few fiery conversations comes with the territory of being a call center agent. With more than two-thirds of customers frustrated with a company before they even pick up the phone to call customer service, it’s inescapable for your agents to deal with some negativity.

But there’s a difference between frustration and hate. Train your agents to spot the difference. From onboarding through continued coaching, review scenarios with your team to help them identify emotionally abusive conversations.

Here are some markers to watch for:

  • Is the customer’s frustration directed at the situation or at the agent handling the call?
  • Is the customer using inappropriate religious, cultural, racial, homophobic, sexist or other derogatory speech?
  • Is the customer threatening physical harm or violence?

Walk through cases of both subtle and overt disrespect, sexual, and/or racist commentary with your team. Then talk through tactics to confront a customer. Make sure your agents know there are boundaries, and they never have to put up with abuse.

One word of caution - sometimes the words used will be offensive even to utter, no matter how well intentioned you may be. Tread carefully and find ways to partially bleep out the words or refer to them in ways that are recognizable but not said.

2. Have Clear Policies to Protect Your Agents

Document and define what abusive language looks like and set a clear action plan for how agents can (and should) handle these types of interactions.
Some contact centers, like Admiral Insurance, let agents use their judgment to determine when customers cross a line. Everyone has their own personal limits and triggers, so it makes sense to leave judgment up to the individual.

If you’re running an autonomous team, a strategy like Admiral’s might be just the ticket to curb abusive behavior. But sometimes, agents need more direction. In this case, create guidelines around when agents can press pause on a conversation, escalate an interaction, or disconnect the customer.

As you create the guidelines, get your team’s input. Let agents reflect on past interactions and share situations that have sent them into emotional overload. During those situations, how do they wish they could’ve handled them? Did they want to offer a warning to the customer to get the conversation back on track, or did they want to hand the call off or disconnect the customer immediately?
Put your agent in the driver’s seat and act as the tour guide – give them control but offer support simultaneously.

3. Give Your Agents Space and Time to Cope

Be flexible with your agents if they need time to step away and collect themselves after a charged conversation. It’s overwhelming (to say the very least) to deal with a degrading customer and then immediately jump back into your next conversation. If an agent flagged a conversation as abusive in their post-call notes, give them a break.

Taking a breather for a few minutes might be just what they need to keep their cool and reorient for their next conversation. When they get back, consider letting them answer emails instead of chats or phone calls, so they have more time to process and respond.

And if you have an agent that dealt with a particularly tough conversation, ask them if they need additional support, and work with them to build a mental health day into their schedule.
We’re all people. No one should have to deal with abuse. Support your team and let them know they didn’t deserve that team, and that you have their back.