Working in a market environment that needs routine conversation via customer support call with a variety of customer demographics center lines can breed many different problems at the psychological level for the representative. In a service business, customers are going to have unique problems that require resolution, with some customers being more accommodating and cooperative than others. In order to manage these situations, employees need to have interpersonal skills and knowledge of basic human psychology to manage these diverse encounters effectively.
Stress may be a typical consequence for the members responsible for handling these conditions, while at the same time maintaining the credibility of the organisation with which they are serving. Stress can best be described as a mental or emotional disquieting response to a difficult condition or situation” (Timma,220). This may involve throwing down the handset or lashing out at the difficult or uncooperative client based on the representative’s emotional discipline. This can lead to job burnout over time, where stress is unmanageable at the psychological level and there is no longer the motivation to meet the expectations of corporate customer service. Obviously, this poses a risk to the company and would likely affect the quality of the experience of the service and change consumer behaviour in the process.
It was recommended to investigate the actions of real-life customer care workers in the service sector in order to explore customer habits in the service encounter linked to tension and work burnout. The analysis indicated that several primary variables should be identified:
- Does the degree of stress felt by the person calling center employees depend on the social skills and personality of the representative?
- Can the attitude of call center employees, related to stress or job burnout, be affected by the communication style of the customer?
- Can the customer manage to change the representative’s stress levels by provoking non-cooperative behavior and then shifting to a more cooperative attitude?
It was hypothesized that customer service representative stress levels can be affected solely by customer attitude, leading to an investigational study on a real-life service organization.
Description of What Exists
People who have experienced burnout in the call center environment might begin to depersonalize others and be marked by emotional exhaustion (Singh, Goolsby & Rhoads, 558). If the telephone representative carries these tendencies, they might choose to use the customer as the object of their frustrations, thus delivering inferior service and potentially creating a very poor service encounter. Catalysts related to burnout and stress might be the customer himself or might be a line manager’s lack of support, appreciation, or recognition for their service job role efforts (St-Vincenta, Denis, Imbeau & Trudeau, 313). Whatever the sources of this stress and/or exhaustion, the evidence points toward the need for a third party to create these feelings of stress of job burnout rather than being an inherent trait. What exists is a situation that might be avoided by a more competent leadership group or simply the luck of the draw that the representative might service cooperative and friendly customers. This study design attempted to discover whether representative attitudes and level of service cooperation could be measurably impacted by the attitude and personality of the customer over the call center lines. In a business environment that is often looking for new and innovative methods to enhance customer service and improve retention levels by unsatisfied employees, this study design created an opportunity to discover the influence of third party intervention to reduce or enhance representative stress levels.
“A person of integrity is one who will be honest, truthful, fair, promote community interests, be open and adaptable and take corrective action” (Sawers, 42). Seeing that one of the study’s objectives was to determine whether it was individual attitude that affected stress response, it was important to identify at least two representatives in a single organization and attempt to draw out integrity and make a comparison between the representatives. The approach to the study was to attempt to draw out characteristics of integrity, based on Comcast’s service promises, and then further measure whether noticeable stress responses could be observed.
Because of limitations associated with waiting time between representatives, two employees were chosen at the company Comcast, a service organization, and were analyzed for their individual responses comparatively. Both customers were approached using a pre-prepared script about service dissatisfaction as preparation for the service encounters. Using this method, it was proposed that the study could be replicated with other non-participant service representatives to improve reliability.
Comcast’s company credo states, “We want our customers to be amazed with the choice Comcast offers, excited by the innovation Comcast provides and satisfied with the service and reliability of every interaction with Comcast” (comcast.com, 1). Based on this information, the researcher determined that they would approach the telephone representatives by clearly indicating they were less-than-amazed with the choice, not at all excited about their service choices, and completely unsatisfied. After measuring response, both service representatives were then given cooperative behaviors based on their responses and attempts to service to measure whether stress responses had been reduced.
Therefore, the study was qualitative in nature, using the researcher’s personal knowledge of customer service theory along with other academic credentials in psychology. It was developed using theories from discourse analysis, measuring the communication styles of each representative along with an observation related to their choice of dialogue and the verbal/tonal changes apparent in the service encounter. Both service representatives used as participants in the study were not informed that they were being monitored as it would have affected the research outcomes. These participants will be classified as Service Representatives A and B, one being female and the other male.
Analysis and Report
Service Representative A answered with a polite voice (the female) and a generally friendly attitude. Immediately, the researcher responded with a small level of hostility, indicating overall dissatisfaction as a potential new customer. Rather provocatively, the researcher suggested that their choices and prices were outrageous and wanted a good deal before signing up for the service. Using likely well-developed and trained aspects of service integrity, the representative attempted to gather needed information and calm the researcher to reinforce that they were glad to assist, even in the face of antagonism. No stress to the situation was noticeable. Throughout the representative’s efforts, the aggression over what was being presented was escalated. Statements such as You must have monkeys running that place and that took a long time, you must be using a Commodore Vic 20 for data retrieval were offered. After these comments and many similar, the representative began to grow obviously frustrated and lost some of the friendly service dimensions that Representative A had initially started. However, based on the level of non-violent, yet growing antagonism, the customer service representative continued about the business of attempting to resolve the situation and take corrective action where they felt it was required. However, it was clear in the changes in personality and in the delivery of communications that the participant was losing sympathy for the researcher’s needs.
Approximately twenty minutes into the discussion, the representative felt that she could not handle the researcher’s issues and asked whether it would be appropriate to hand the call over to her management team. At this point, the researcher became quite submissive, steering toward cooperative behaviors and began to appeal to the representative’s personal accomplishments and competence in their job role as phone rep. Using the company credo as reference, the researcher informed the participant that their choice was superior and that he was satisfied with the total service encounter. However, there were no changes to the obvious level of frustration and the employee was obviously experiencing high levels of stress over the nature of the customer’s communication style. In this particular case, it was clear that the damage had been done and there was no steering of the representative back to her professional, courteous tone of voice.
Service Representative B, the male rep, answered in similar tone of voice. Using the same methodology, the researcher immediately began to badger the representative, poking aggressively at their choice of selection and pricing. This representative seemed startled by the lack of cooperation, however continued on with the same level of courtesy that Representative A had reflected. Throughout the call, the same hostile provocations used on the first participant were offered. However, Representative B did not seem at all stressed by the situation, rather they simply reinforced that they understood my concerns and would be glad to assist further and for as long as was needed.
After switching to a more cooperative attitude, Representative B started acting more social to the researcher, indicating his own dissatisfaction with the volume of support workers in his division. Interestingly, this individual showed quite obvious signs of integrity by being bluntly honest about what appeared to be lingering resentment over lack of management support and the customer waiting times for inadequately-staffed call center lines and went on for nearly six minutes about internal issues. With the researcher’s cooperative attitude, it seemed to open the proverbial flood gates of insider information both to help the representative psychologically and as an offer of apology for initial customer concerns related to technology support and staff motivation. By the time the call had ended, no signs of stress existed whatsoever, rather it was quite clear that this particular representative had achieved burnout long ago and was ready to seek new employment. The call ended with a rather interesting, positive social connection that had the representative laughing and feeling quite good about having serviced the researcher.
Both representatives, at the end of the calls, were informed that they had been participants in a research study so as to explain the unusual behavior of the caller. Service Representative A seemed relieved, while Representative B found it quite amusing and suggested he would share the nature of the research call with his colleagues.
When analyzing the data gathered, it was clear that a single caller can impact stress levels in certain customer service representatives, validating that third party intervention might be needed to induce stress levels. Burnout definitely was a pre-existing condition for Representative B and the call, intended to provoke higher stress levels and affect integrity-based outcomes, only served as a forum to express his growing dissatisfaction with internal management and support issues. In this case, stress was noticeably reduced by offering a social outlet with which to identify the source of resentment. However, it was clear that pre-existing burnout was caused by third party intervention and not inherent personality traits.
Representative A clearly had stress created by the nature of the service encounter that were not lessened even after changing attitude to a more cooperative, grateful communications style. This tends to support the literature provided regarding stress creation and emotional exhaustion. This study creates unique opportunities for future researchers, with larger research resources, to measure a larger sample of representatives to determine whether single, stressful calls can impact future service quality and customer satisfaction.
This study identified that factors related to individual call representative stress levels are unique depending on the individual coping mechanisms related to personality and emotion. It would seem to point toward there being no proverbial one-size-fits-all method for managers that can guarantee stress reduction and call center employee satisfaction. This is supported by Representative B and his absolutely stress-free service philosophy that was noticeably unaffected emotionally by the escalating level of antagonism offered by the researcher.
Though the results of this study left many questions unanswered. However, it is best to conclude that individual needs are going to likely affect how manager’s activities are affected as related to human resources and improvement of employee motivation. It did indicate, however, that a third party can definitely impact noticeable changes in stress response and persuade call center employees to be exasperated and look toward management support when handling difficult callers.
- Comcast.com. “The Comcast Credo”. (2010): 1. http://www.comcast.com/Corporate/About/CorporateInfo/Credo.html (viewed August 9, 2010).
- Sawers, Andrew. “The importance of being honest”. Financial Director. (2007): 42.
- Singh, Jagdip, Jerry Goolsby & Gary Rhoads. “Behavioral and psychological consequences of boundary spanning burnout for customer service”. Journal of Marketing Research. 31.4. (1994): 558-569.
- St-Vincenta, M., D. Denis, D. Imbeau & R. Trudeau. “Symptoms of stress related to the characteristics of customer service”. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. Vol. 36. (2006): 313-321.