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PHOTO: Reynier Carl

Call-center employees have rightfully been heralded as the superheroes of customer experience, working away from the spotlight and rarely receiving the recognition they deserve. As the first human point of contact many customers will have, call center employees must balance a number of skills to bring each contact to a successful resolution. 

While experts agree empathy is one of those key skills, they identified five other skills as essential for customer representatives to be effective.

1. Aptitude for Communications 

“Contact center agents are the face of the organization,” said Odette de Beer, co-founder of Amplify Business Coaching. Therefore, well-rounded communications skills are a must for agents, including:

  • Active listening: Not listening to respond but listening to understand, and making notes so the customer doesn’t have to repeat information. This includes using the information given by the customer to find the most appropriate solution.
  • Providing feedback: When necessary, the contact agent should provide feedback to close the loop with the customer — it improves the experience and builds trust in the organization.

“These skills are simple but often not trained,” de Beer added. “Contact center agents often get the least amount of training because it’s a ‘bum in seat’ situation. The skills are not rocket science, but it is what sets one organization apart for another.”

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2. Ability to De-Escalate

Another critical skill is the ability to de-escalate an angry customer’s emotions, said Rolfe Bax, chief human resources officer with Resume.io. “The average call center employee receives around 50 or more calls per day, with several being distraught or irate customers. The job of the call center employee is to provide solutions to customer issues and queries, but very often workers are taught to patronize rather than actually de-escalate.”

To teach this skill, people need to know how to use the tone of their voice to produce calm, to actively listen and to follow up by asking customers whether any actions or solutions would actually help them, Bax added. “This shows the emotional person that you are really interested in making their life easier.”

3. Ability to Manage Stress 

Dealing with sometimes irate customers is only one of the stressful situations that call center employees face on a daily basis, Bax added. “Call center work is stressful, both because of the immense amount of multi-tasking required and the pressure from managers to hit targets and quotas.”

People need to know how to manage and compartmentalize stressors, dealing with one source of stress at a time, Bax said. As a result, employees burn out and the industry is plagued by very high turnover.

“The best way to teach stress management is to emphasize that human beings can actually embrace the stress rather than allow themselves to easily succumb to it,” said Bax. “The second component of stress management education is what is often referred to as 'emotional first aid' where people are told that they are allowed to make mistakes and should be compassionate to themselves when they make them.”

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4. Ability to Go Beyond Empathy

One company that has a high percentage of callers in stressful situations is ServPRO, a company that provides fire and water restoration services. So in that company’s case, many of the calls from customers are coming in after fires and floods.

“A customer contact center employee needs the ability to make a connection with the customer that goes beyond empathy, so that requires maturity, an ability to listen carefully and analyze the problem and what the solution might be, and patience,” said Michael Stahl, the company's chief marketing officer. “Frankly, these are skills that are needed anywhere in business, but certainly in a situation where you are dealing with someone who is upset, in need of help and likely very vulnerable. When a customer reaches out because they need help, it’s critical to be able to do what you can to help them.”

To promote and teach these skills, an organization needs to foster a culture of positivity and accountability, and to reward and acknowledge when contact center employees do their jobs well., Stahl added. Regularly checking in with employees to ensure they feel they have the support and information they need to do their job is key, as is asking for their input on procedures or even scripting. Acknowledging the opinions of the individuals who are on the frontline of working with the customers goes a long way in making them feel supported, that their opinions and feedback matter, and that they are helping the company as a whole.

Stahl also recommended implementing a regular role play practice to familiarize employees with common questions and help them determine how to respond to different situations.

5. Having a Customer-Centered Mindset

To be the most effective at their jobs, call-center employees need to have a customer-centered mindset, said Andrea Gillis, executive coach and founder of People Lab.

A customer-centric mindset has four principles:

  • Positive outcome is possible: Change is possible, a solution can be found.
  • Positive intention: Every reaction and action has a positive intention.
  • Resourcefulness: Together you and the client can create the best possible outcome.
  • Best choice: The client got to this point by making the best choices they could with the information they had.

These skills can be practiced, Gillis added. For example, waiting in line for coffee: You are starting to get impatient as the person at the counter is moving slowly.  Practice positive intention: Rather than thinking “What’s taking them so long, clearly they don’t know what they are doing” consider “They are being methodical and careful so they get this right.” It doesn’t change the situation, but it does change your reaction to it.