Published: January 27, 2023 | Comments
As a contact center leader, you’re always looking for ways to improve performance and keep your agents happy. Despite the creativity of your approaches or the generosity of your rewards and incentives, you've likely come across a particular challenge: apathy.
As soon as an agent starts “just going through the motions” rather than engaging with customers, interaction quality plummets—and so do customer satisfaction scores. You know that preventing these types of scenarios is key to keeping morale high and productivity consistent—but how? In this blog post, we're discussing how to recognize warning signs and prevent contact center agent apathy before it affects performance metrics (and profits!).
You Didn't Hire Apathetic Agents
Employee blame is often the first reaction when agent apathy is discovered. It's understandable to want to assign it elsewhere; after all, who wants to take responsibility for employee indifference?
"We missed the warning signs during their interviews," is what one contact center leader once told me. They were certain that they were hiring agents with a predisposition for apathy. However, let's be real - the signs were not likely missed during the hiring process. Agents do not come preloaded with indifference; it builds over time as job roles and values fail to align, or expectations of performance and development are either unknown or unrealistic. Managers need to dive in deep and understand what could have resulted in such a disengaged workforce.
Agent apathy is a common problem but one that doesn't come out of nowhere; it typically builds up over time. It can be caused by a variety of factors, some in your control and others not. For example, agents may become apathetic due to the lack of resources they need, misaligned expectations in terms of workload, lack of recognition and/or reward for their efforts, inadequate training or communication guidelines, and workplace culture clashes.
It’s important to know how to recognize the signs of agent apathy as soon as possible to act quickly and try to address those issues appropriately. Failing that, the consequences of this type of employee disengagement are far-reaching, so tackling it early on is key.
The Warning Signs of Apathy
Although extreme signs of workplace discontent, like sluggish performance and frequent no-shows, can be indicative that something's amiss, it’s important to look for more subtle clues. Pay attention when an employee displays a lack of enthusiasm or passion toward daily tasks - these are telltale signs that their loyalty may be dwindling. Identifying the early warning signs of agent apathy can be tricky, but it's essential for staying ahead of potential problems.
Apathetic behavior can show up in customer interactions as simple things like speaking slowly or with a lack of enthusiasm or offering minimal responses to customers’ questions. It may also manifest as failing to follow standard operating procedures when troubleshooting an issue. Without probing, these behaviors could be assumed as training opportunities - the agents don't know how to do something or understand why it matters - when it's an unwillingness bred out of indifference.
When trying to differentiate between agents who lack the necessary skills or knowledge and those who are apathetic and unwilling, it is important to ask the right questions. It can be helpful to draw on techniques such as asking the agent to discuss what could be done differently and their perception of where the issue lies. Additionally, probing questions that dive deeper can help uncover the root cause of any issues.
Effective probing questions should focus on clarifying the issue and include open-ended questions that require further explanation such as:
- “What do you think is causing this issue?”
- “Can you describe the problem in more detail?”
Additionally, it’s important to ask specific questions and follow up on answers received, such as:
- “Which system were you using when this happened?”
- “Have you had similar issues with this system in the past?”
Lastly, non-leading questions can also be used to better understand the employee’s viewpoint without influencing their response - for example:
- “How would you state that differently?”
- “Can you provide further information about why this has had an impact for you?”
By asking a combination of these types of probing questions, managers can develop a more comprehensive understanding of how best to resolve their employee's issues.
So, what if the issue is apathy? The root cause could be complicated, uncomfortable, or downright insolvable. What's a leader to do then?
Address Apathy Sooner Than Later
Addressing apathy before it's too late requires contact center leaders to be intentional and purposeful in their conversations with employees. This means considering employee feedback, even when this feedback may not always be easy to hear. Leaders should approach mistakes and customer issues with an open mind and a willingness to learn from them, rather than approaching unpleasant feedback as personal criticism or embarrassment.
The key is to remain calm and confident even if the agent is negative or unenthusiastic. An empathetic approach should be taken to better understand the agent's viewpoint and show them that their feelings are valid. It’s important to avoid getting into an argument or reacting emotionally, as this will only worsen the situation. During the conversation, focus on solutions and provide clear expectations of what needs to be done going forward, while also emphasizing the value of their work and its importance for customers' satisfaction.
Here are a few common causes of agent apathy and advice on how to approach those conversations.
Providing agents with the opportunity to give honest feedback can do wonders for addressing employee apathy that is the result of low office morale. Employees need to know that their opinions and suggestions will not only be heard but also valued. Taking time to ask for input on how to improve office culture, job satisfaction, or anything else related to their work lives can make them feel respected and foster a feeling of inclusion in key decisions. Additionally, implementing ideas suggested by employees shows that you are taking their feedback seriously, enabling them to have a tangible impact on their work environment.
Addressing employee apathy which is the result of burnout can be a daunting task. It's important to remember that it’s normal for contact center agents to experience burnout, particularly in today’s fast-paced, and high-expectation world. The key is to find the root cause and identify proactive solutions rather than responding reactively. First, look at what tasks may be overloading your employees; consider streamlining procedures or reducing workloads where possible. Secondly, make sure there are appropriate levels of downtime, which will reduce day-to-day stress levels and help to restore physical and mental well-being. Finally, recognize and praise good work when it is done.
Overwhelming Customer Demands
Listening to your employees and showing compassion is essential when they face high customer demands. It's important to be patient and take the time to understand their struggles to offer helpful advice. The most important thing you can do is let them know that they are not alone; other members of the team may also be facing the same issues and frustrations. Understanding why they're feeling overwhelmed will enable you to guide potential solutions. If a solution isn't available (for example, lagging systems cause customer frustration and there are no plans to upgrade systems), having candid conversations with your employees can alleviate some of this tension.
Working together to find practical alternatives that help meet customer demands while providing employees with clear expectations can open the door for further collaboration. As you have these conversations, listening and understanding the perspectives of both customers and employees can help develop a plan that meets the needs of all parties. Additionally, effectively communicating expectations around new processes or timelines for any proposed modifications are equally important for employee satisfaction. Focusing on shared objectives as a team can enable forward movement despite current system limitations.
Own and Overcome Your Contribution to Apathy
Creating a positive, productive atmosphere in the contact center is a critical part of preventing agent apathy. As a contact center leader, it's your job to recognize that apathy doesn’t simply manifest itself with employees - it comes from problems and issues in the contact center environment that must be addressed.
That’s why creating an open communication culture that encourages meaningful feedback is essential. Without such an atmosphere, there can be no identifying and solving of root causes related to apathy. Leaders need to empower their agents with the right resources and provide them with strategies to handle emotionally draining tasks. Moreover, striving for efficiency without compromising customer service is even more important; good customer service should never come at the cost of agent burnout.
In this way, leaders can build a flourishing culture of engaged agents who are happy to contribute their best efforts to the company. This starts at the top; managers should model the behaviors they want their teams to display and actively foster communication within the contact center. By looking beneath the surface of workplace issues, busy managers can proactively identify the causes of agent apathy to put initiatives into place that will reinvigorate their teams. Ultimately, it's up to us as contact center leaders to create a culture where our agents feel energized and engaged: because when we take care of our team, our team takes care of our customers.