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How to prepare customer service agents for threatening or emergency interactions

People and Culture

The life of a contact center agent can be challenging, but also engrossing, satisfying and enriching. Individuals who thrive on helping others — the very same people who make the best customer service agents — enjoy puzzling over how to solve problems, and even embrace the challenges of difficult customer calls.

The ideal agents are compassionate, and know how to show empathy. They're well-trained and prepared for most scenarios. However, even when armed with all of these traits and skills, a contact center agent may find themselves facing situations they aren't sure how to handle. For instance, what happens when a caller crosses the line and becomes hostile? And what should an agent do if, in the middle of a call, a customer needs emergency medical attention?

The reality is that events like these do occur, and agents must be ready for them. More importantly, the company that they work for needs to provide the proper training and support to get their team members through even the most challenging of interactions.

In the face of conflict, de-escalate the call

One of the most common ways that customers challenge agents is by losing their temper. While it isn't unusual for a caller to become angry in some circumstances, there is a fine line between frustration and abusive, or even dangerous behavior.

"Somebody who's calling about software probably isn't going to threaten to take their life if an issue isn't fixed, says Shep Hyken, customer experience expert and author of the upcoming book The Cult of the Customer: Create an Amazing Customer Experience That Turns Satisfied Customers Into Customer Evangelists. "But, don't put it past a customer to say something dramatic if they're a little off-balance and are reaching out to you for help."

As the old adage goes, "hope for the best, but prepare for the worst." That is why it's best to have a strategy in place for a number of different customer reactions, including anxiety, hostility and even depression. Aim to help your customer care team soothe upset customers and de-escalate situations by using carefully crafted scripts for each potential scenario.

Read the signs and respond accordingly

Extensive, high-quality training can put customer service agents at an advantage when it comes to interpreting consumers' emotional states. The ability to identify and read critical voice or text cues may reveal that a customer suffers from depression, or alert you to the possibility of self-harm or another form of violence.

For instance, if a customer expresses suicidal thoughts, the everyday script goes out the window and it becomes a customer service emergency. Agents should snap into action to protect their well-being.

For these types of situations, the most critical thing for an agent to do is to stay calm. Assessing the customer's state of mind is crucial, and doing so will be impossible if the agent is distressed. It's also helpful to take note of any information the customer divulged that might be of assistance to emergency services. For example, did the customer mention their location or whether they were alone?

If the agent believes for any reason or at any point that the situation is serious, they should immediately seek assistance. It's wise to institute a system for deferring calls to a superior who may have more experience handling challenging situations. "Every company should have that in place — somebody, or a group of people, who can handle those emergencies," Hyken says. Try developing a signaling system in your contact center to help agents alert supervisors fast.

Debrief and de-stress

Crisis training isn't just about knowing how to read and respond to a caller. It's also about reading your agents. After a difficult customer interaction, agents are likely to be emotionally drained and even shaken. They may even experience some trauma themselves. For this reason, it's important to make sure agents' emotional needs are met by building a culture of well-being and support.

In a recent interview with CEO Today, Jeff Puritt, TELUS International president and CEO, notes that the company trains its managers to identify symptoms of secondary trauma in members of their staff. One way to do this is by following demanding calls with one-on-on coaching by a supervisor or mentor. This is an opportunity for agents to share their fears and frustrations with others post-shift.

Team members at TELUS International are also offered individual or group sessions with psychologists or counselors on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis, along with resilience workshops and regular visits from experts with stories of their own. On-site fitness centers that boost physical and mental health, walking breaks and debriefing sessions after difficult calls are also useful strategies.

Supporting your customers does not have to come at the expense of your customer experience team. Making sure agents are prepared and protected, regardless of the situation at hand, is critical to employee health and, ultimately, retention. Train your agents to be ready for anything, and be there for them when the job is done. You'll find the benefits extend from your customers to your agents and the company as a whole.

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