Today, spare a thought for the call centre operators

By Françoise Mathieu, M.Ed, RP, CCC., Executive Director, TEND

I was catching up on the news this morning and reading about the long wait times to reach Service Canada to ask about employment insurance; about the days spent on hold by stranded travelers trying to reach airline customer service before the borders close; and other similar situations where callers are experiencing long wait times and high levels of distress and frustration.

We are also hearing about 911 communicators who are receiving large volumes of calls from both the worried-well and the mildly ill while still dealing with life and death matters. (By the way, this isn’t new for emergency communicators – as they will tell you – but the workload is unprecedented right now).

Since my team has had the immense privilege of working with many customer service workers and call centre operators in the past, from every possible industry that you can imagine,  I would like to break down what may be happening at the receiving end of that phone call, live chat or email.

Most operators were already experiencing very high-pressure work environments before this pandemic unfolded.

Large volume of calls, angry and distressed clients, not enough time for proper breaks, and even physical injuries from poorly designed workstations are just some of the stressors that call centre workers deal with on a daily basis. Many are also struggling with low pay, long hours, low reward jobs and a wide range of workplace climates from the very healthy to the, quite frankly, straight-up toxic.

I used to provide employee assistance to a call centre that had a three-month turnover rate – that’s how long their staff lasted before they quit. That being said, I have mostly worked with incredibly supportive customer service leadership – however, they are still grappling with the complex challenges of the workload and difficult callers.

The types of calls that they receive are highly varied – even during normal circumstances.

These calls can range from callers who are seriously mentally ill, suicidal, uttering threats, being verbally abusive, or even just someone who is calling the wrong service and is very upset that the operator is unable to help them.

They rarely have the power to fix your problem beyond what they have the scope to do.

Call centre operators are working within the same mess that we are all in right now including slow websites, lack of information from high above, and rapidly changing policies, rules, regulations and procedures. Yelling at them will not make them more powerful than they are – and will likely just make everyone more stressed out and upset.

In some instances, you can ask to escalate the call to a supervisor for more answers, but that can be done politely.  

Sometimes they do have some discretion to do a few extra things.

Yesterday, as I was busy working with some of my health care agencies on Zoom, my internet provider called to say that they had to interrupt my service for some not-very-urgent reason.

When I nicely told the operator about the work that I do, he genuinely thanked me for my service, and said that he would postpone the service interruption. In my experience, being kind to customer service workers goes a long way. 

Most of them are not trained in mental health first aid.

Unless they work in a highly specialized service that provides mental health assistance, most operators do not have this kind of training. Yet, many call centre operators must manage callers who are emotionally dysregulated, and this can take a real toll on them.

They almost never get closure.

Many call center operators and communicators have told me that a challenging aspect of their job is that they rarely get closure on how the story ends. This may not be particularly distressing for someone who is trying to help you activate your cell phone but can be a very real source of emotional stress for those who receive calls about stressful or traumatic situations. Some of them have told us that these calls can “hitch a ride with them” and there is rarely time for proper debriefing afterwards.

They are going through this pandemic too.

Operators have financial concerns, families, and toilet paper shortages just like the rest of us (sorry I couldn’t help myself!). But truly, these folks are rarely highly paid, and this work is how they feed their families. Perhaps their spouse is out of work right now or maybe they are trying to take these calls from a crowded, quarantined house full of kids. We just never know what’s going on in the lives of others.

My aim today is to invite all of us to show some kindness and consideration for those communicators and call centre operators, even if they can’t help us to our satisfaction. They are dealing with an unprecedented volume of requests and are working as fast and as hard as they can.

So, please spare a thought for the folks at the other end of that phone line, customer service email or live chat and when you finally get a real human being at the other end, please thank them for their service.

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