The abuse of contact centre staff by callers has reached unprecedented levels, threatening both the mental health of workers and potentially future access to personalised customer service, industry body Customer Contact Network New Zealand (CCNNZ) is warning.
"If Kiwis want a future that is completely dominated by bots, they're doing a good job of getting there," CCNNZ CEO, Elias Kanaris said. "Imagine being stranded at an airport and having to rely on a bot to solve your problem—it will likely be a long and lonely ordeal.
"It would be rare to see people using the level of abuse and profanity in a public situation, say in a retail store, but with contact centre staff it is a daily thing, and it is getting too much."
Kanaris said the issue was not with automation because technology is a powerful tool to enhance customer service and introduce efficiencies and other benefits for business—68% of contact centres offer both self-service and human-assisted channels—but we still need human intervention for many things.
"Operators taking the brunt of the public's frustration is not fair. And while they are trained to de-escalate a situation, it takes a toll. The problem is particularly bad post COVID-19, possibly because organisations released staff during the pandemic and haven't been able to make up the numbers, leading to longer wait times. To make things worse, call volumes overall have risen sharply in the last year.
"We are asking more and more of a few," Kanaris said. "We also note that callers believe they are better educated about their rights and uncompromising in their expectations, which makes them harder to reason with. The consequences are that we have higher sick leave rates and increasing staff turnover because contact centres are a pressure cooker environment."
Kanaris said that fewer people addressing higher contact volumes results in longer wait times.
"To protect the brand, members tell us that it is not uncommon for management to implement tougher key performance indicators (KPI's) on workers because they have business metrics to achieve. For example, contact centre staff are expected to process and resolve a certain number of contacts on a shift, within certain time limits.
"You can imagine how a caller feels after waiting an hour to be heard and then it seems like the contact centre operator is in a hurry to move them on. It is hurting the mental health of contact centre operators, while brands are taking heat from the public and media on the customer service front—it really is a rock and a hard place.
Kanaris said CCNNZ is asking for a bit more understanding and civility from the public.
"Just because the operator is faceless doesn't mean you can treat them like a non-entity."
For contact centre staff, Kanaris recommends that they take micro-moments between calls to de-compress after traumatic calls.
"Take 30 seconds or a minute to stand up, walk, breathe. This will help you reset for the next contact."
2. Be civil
Kanaris is asking the public to be civil and patient because contact centre staff are doing all they can to help.
"Delayed help is better than no help. Ask yourself, how would you feel if another person was rude, frustrated and abusive towards you for doing your job?"
3. Balance public experience with the needs of employees
Employers, even under brand pressure from high call volumes, absences and staff turnover, are urged to be more considerate of staff needs by, for example, re-evaluating metrics like call time versus first-call resolution.
"Call back technology is one solution and is widely used, but the problem is that that many Kiwis don't trust the call-back feature and don't want to give up their place in the queue."
Kanaris called for greater investment in compensating, recruiting, and training people, as well as paying particular attention to the mental health of contact centre staff.
"Bearing in mind that contact centre staff are important because they are the frontline and therefore instrumental in shaping the customer's experience and perception of an organisation."