“I really enjoy my job,” says Sarah*, a customer service agent working for a public sector organisation, “but we’re treated terribly.” This statement will not come as a surprise to anyone who has worked in a similar role. Customer service agents typically have gruelling roles and often bear the brunt of people’s anger when things go wrong – even if the fault had nothing to do with them.
The daily deluge of irate and even abusive customers can take its toll, leaving agents feeling anxious and lonely. We spoke to anonymous customer service agents about their experiences and the impacts of doing such a job.
“I do find it demoralising,” admits Sarah. “A customer might be getting emotional, and you can’t leave someone in that state even though you know that the next few people are going to have a go at you for calling them late … I’ve had a few sensitive situations that did affect me for a few weeks.”
Along with the challenges of handling upset clients, customer service agents cite the pressure of call targets as the most difficult aspect of the job. “The new manager wants all appointments back-to-back,” says Sarah, “and wants us to handle six customers per hour.”
Tina*, who works in the automotive industry, also points to the pressure of targets: “We all have service-level agreements to meet. The main rule is that every call must be answered within 20 seconds.”
These demands can have a big impact on the workplace environment. Jean*, a customer service representative for a logistics firm, explains the implications. “Time off the phone in ‘not ready’ mode, where you’re logged in but not taking calls, is closely monitored,” she says. “If you happen to bump into a colleague when you’re on a toilet break, you can’t even ask how they are because anything over three and a half minutes away from your desk could tip you over the edge of what is acceptable for your ‘not ready’ time for the day.”
The intense pressure of call centre work can make it hard for customer service agents to look after their wellbeing – even at a basic level. “I managed to get my first drink at 1pm one day last week,” says Sarah. She’d started work at 9am.
“I hardly move from my desk unless it’s during one of my allotted times,” says Tina. She has to tell her team if she needs to step away so that her colleagues can cover the phones. “As an adult it feels strange that you’re basically asking for permission to go to the toilet.”
Tina also highlights the mental pressure that customer service agents put themselves under: “You know that the longer you’re on the phone to someone, the more likely you are to miss a call, which makes you feel guilty and as if you’ve let the team down.”
Moreover, in a customer service setting, it can be difficult to nurture the kind of collegiality that is such a valued part of office life. “When you’re in a call-after-call environment, there’s no way to bond with work colleagues because you can’t even have a basic chat about what you did at the weekend,” says Jean. “It can be very, very lonely.”
Customer service agents say that being tied to their phones makes it difficult to foster relationships with their co-workers. Photograph: RicardoImagen/Getty Images/iStockphoto
While the experiences of Jean, Tina and Sarah may be common, they are not inevitable. Digital technologies can transform the experience for employees, customers and managers alike.
For example, automated customer service tools can provide consumers and clients with more and better self-service options, enabling them to easily access the information they’re looking for without having to wait in a queue for a call handler to be free. In turn, customer service agents have fewer calls to respond to and can therefore focus on the more complex enquiries.
Digital customer service workflows can further reduce workloads by using virtual agents to deal with common requests, again freeing up staff to concentrate on those issues that require human intervention. Automation and artificial intelligence can also collect information up front, making it easier for agents to resolve those cases that do come through to them.
“Automated solutions can help reduce pressure on frontline employees, especially in contexts where repetitive tasks can be dealt with without human intervention,” says Dr Rodrigo Perez-Vega, senior lecturer in digital marketing at the University of Kent’s business school. “Automated solutions can also augment frontline employees’ response capabilities, which can enhance customer service delivery and provide more rapid customer service recovery when a service failure occurs.”
That said, automated solutions can sometimes be less popular with customers. “From a customer perspective,” continues Perez-Vega, “personality traits, attitudes towards automation, as well as the opportunity cost from using the technology (eg waiting times to speak with a human frontline employee), can determine the preference of automation versus human interaction when conducting a transaction with firms.”
Using automated systems in conjunction with customer service agents is one way to give customers the best of both worlds. “Many companies that rely on automation for customer service already use a hybrid approach, leaving less complex tasks to automated systems,” says Perez-Vega.
“For instance, some companies use online forms to allow customers to place orders or file a complaint. More advanced systems like chatbots can help guide customers with easy tasks like making changes to their account or helping them find information to solve their problems on the firm’s website. More complex issues can lead to human intervention from frontline employees via, say, a live chat.”
Companies using the customer service solutions offered by the digital workflow provider ServiceNow have reported improvements across a range of key metrics, including staff satisfaction scores and the level of service provided to customers. At the insurance software brand Cheshire Datasystems Ltd (CDL), there was a 50% reduction in calls and emails to the service desk, and it took just five minutes to process certain customer service requests that previously took hours.
Likewise, Basware, an invoicing and payment company, reported a 75% reduction in customer response times, a 30% decrease in resolution time and an 11% increase in customer satisfaction scores.
These changes benefit the employees who handle the calls and enquiries. At the digital services firm Capita, the staff satisfaction rating rose to 85%, while the higher education provider Deakin University witnessed a 33% increase in staff satisfaction compared with the previous year. At SmarTone, a telecommunications provider, employee attrition fell by 50%.
Indeed, while there might be a perceived tension between automated and human customer service, these types of IT solutions show that automated workflows can allow customer service agents to be a more human face of a business – and, ultimately, to feel that they’re treated as human in themselves.
Want to learn more about what’s next at work? Visit us at servicenow.com/uk
* Names have been changed to protect identities