Smiling Down The Phone: Emotional Labor, Attrition In Customer Service And What We Can Do
As an innovator in remote work for over a decade, I have seen the Great Resignation and the normalization of working from home create a perfect storm for the industry, but also a clear impetus for fortifying the well-being of employees. As expectations of frictionless service clash with pandemic-driven realities, it is causing more customers to lash out inappropriately. Attrition rates in many contact centers are surpassing already high historical averages, increasing pressure on both remaining workers and company bottom lines. With no let-up in sight, it’s high time we face one of the biggest elephants in the room: the toll of emotional labor.
The Link Between Attrition And Emotional Labor
Customer service associates have always walked a tightrope between improving operational efficiency and maximizing customer satisfaction. This often requires that they hide their real emotions and, in effect, smile down the phone—an activity that psychologists refer to as “emotional labor.” In times of upheaval, emotional labor can be particularly exhausting because the disconnect between felt and displayed emotions increases physiological arousal. The ensuing drain of energy can lead to burnout, lower feelings of job accomplishment, and less job involvement—all precursors of attrition that may be intensified when associates work at home without the support of peers.
Fortunately, we as leaders can offer solutions. Although employees are routinely coached to show empathy as a means of resetting the customer’s emotional state, research suggests that simply expecting employees to “feel with” our customers can trigger distress. If, however, we view empathic processes as emotional labor, we can provide opportunities for employees, much like actors, to hone their craft.
Making Emotional Labor More Sustainable
Two classic techniques to help customer service representatives better understand their responses to emotional labor are surface acting and deep acting. Surface-acting people tend to alter their emotions to match their prescribed role, potentially estranging themselves from their own feelings and a sense of connection with others; deep-acting people, on the other hand, are more likely to change their perspective on the situation. This might involve talking to others about their upsetting experience; physically “flipping the switch” by smiling and taking a deep breath; reframing the situation by imagining the caller in a more sympathetic light; or stressing the positive (“I kept my cool!”).
Even outside of customer-facing situations, deep actors tend to build relationships with mutual benefit in mind, rather than individual gain. This, in turn, yields so-called “social capital gains,” like more support from coworkers or having more trust in peers. As such, teaching deep acting as part of a larger strategy for having healthy relationships at work could help inoculate against the chronic effects reported by many agents.
Adapting To Remote Work
Since many customer-service associates who started at brick-and-mortar centers are now working in isolation at home, an important step for meeting this moment may be building on what we already know about the effects of loneliness on well-being. Not only is loneliness an obstacle to reducing the stress of emotional labor, but workers who are lonely also have significantly greater stress-related absenteeism and higher turnover intention.
So, as industry leaders, it behooves us to focus on how we can promote remote work communities that boost the immunity of emotional laborers exposed to hostile encounters.
At the day-to-day level, I suggest building in virtual breaktimes where possible that allow employees to lean on co-workers for support. Additionally, showing immediate empathy to associates when customers are unreasonable may stave off negative spirals.
On a larger scale, evolve training curriculums with the aim of improving emotional intelligence across all levels of organizational life. This is helpful because people with high emotional intelligence are adept at handling social situations, and in the process often make people feel good not only about themselves but also going the extra mile on the job.
We have seen, too, that communication technologies such as instant messaging and video conferencing, which made the pandemic-driven shift to remote work possible, do in fact facilitate employee connection. Yet we also learned from the ensuing phenomenon of Zoom fatigue that the full impact of these tools on worker loneliness and emotional labor has yet to play out, especially among younger workers. In response, community-building workplace platforms are being developed to better meet employees’ diverse needs.
Finally, I recommend incorporating emotional effort into performance reviews to acknowledge the value of handling one’s own emotions as well as those of others. Such acknowledgment may re-set the dynamics of emotional labor in this increasingly reactive world, and for the person smiling down the phone, restore a sense of genuine accomplishment in meeting the needs of our customers.
The modern-day contact center is an extremely challenging environment for our employees. In our relentless pursuit of efficiency and lower cost, we’ve lost sight of the human connection and the emotional toll experienced each day by those in customer-facing roles. Designing and implementing practical solutions like those described above will create healthier, happier and more enriching places to work and begin to shift the negative perceptions of our industry.