April is stress awareness month, so I want to bring your attention to the impact that stress has on customer service. Financial, economic, social and work pressures make us all vulnerable to heightened levels of stress. What difference does that make to customer experience and outcomes?

Stress is a natural reaction to a perceived threat or sense of overwhelm. In response, our body prepares for flight or fight mode, with blood pumping to the muscles in readiness for physical action. That is helpful if you need to run to escape danger.

A small amount of stress can be a great driving force, giving us the motivation to get things done. Some people need the pressure of a tight deadline or a challenging problem to solve to impel action. Exam stress can enhance performance and some people can’t get enough of that heart-pumping, energy rush gained through participation in extreme sports.

In modern life, dealing with financial difficulties, workload, care responsibilities, technology and bullying are among the threats we face. Unfortunately, in most situations, we can’t just get up and dash out of the door. Even if we do, the cause of stress doesn’t go away. There is little respite from the pressures experienced at work and home, so our bodies are operating on overdrive.

Long-term exposure to stress impacts our physical and mental health, making us more prone to illness. It affects our cognitive abilities, meaning our ability to focus, think rationally and remember information is impaired. Prolonged stress has an emotional impact, lowering our mood and our tolerance of others.

Collectively, these impacts alter our behaviour. As a result, we might become more impulsive and aggressive or withdrawn and incapacitated. Whilst a small dose of stress can drive us into action, a large dose lowers motivation and productivity. Not getting things done, along with declining health and often a lack of sleep, often adds to the problem and stress levels.

Let’s consider this from both perspectives. Firstly, if the employee is stressed, they are likely to want to avoid customer engagement; they have enough on their plate already! They may put on a friendly face and tone, but it won’t come across as genuine and may be quick to fall. They will want to get the interaction over quickly.

What the customer experiences is someone avoiding them; making themselves look busy or not responding to their call/email. Sensing tension, the customer may not ask questions or share information, but if they do, the response is likely to be curt. They may not get their needs met and the interaction ends with them feeling undervalued.

Secondly, if the customer is stressed, they want the employee to understand the issue and resolve it. In some cases, this may be possible and the sense of relief is evident. However, if the employee can’t deliver what they want, their behaviour and tone can be quick to turn. They may get upset or angry and their ability to take on any further information is limited.

What the employee experiences is someone who is being unreasonable. They aren’t listening and the volume and pace of their voice is increasing. They may become threatening and on the defensive, you don’t want to be serving someone like that. You no longer care if their needs are met and the interaction ends abruptly, with the likelihood of a complaint being made.

In both cases, stress is likely to reduce the chances of the customer getting what they need. It also negatively affects both parties and the reputation of the business. For these reasons, we need to know how to help employees manage their stress levels and those of their customers.

According to Statista data* 79% of the UK workforce frequently feels stressed. Those in customer service roles experienced the highest frequency of daily stress. Workload, lack of support and aggressive customers were some of the workplace pressures causing this stress.

Equipping managers with the skills to identify stressed colleagues and provide support can help individuals to cope. It is important that staff feel:

  • Listened to
  • Able to discuss options and collaborate on solutions
  • Supported

These are achievable if policies and practices support work-life balance including flexible working options and no out-of-hours communication. Employees should feel confident that expressing how they feel will be beneficial, not detrimental. That means agreeing on solutions, such as training, new equipment, delegation or a change to work hours to help alleviate stress.

All employees can also benefit from training that helps them to respond calmly and helpfully to customers who are stressed. This can include assisting them with unfamiliar technology or forms. It also covers being equipped to handle difficult customer conversations to diffuse, rather than escalate, stress levels.

The benefits of helping employees to manage their stress levels, and those of their customers, include:

  • Improved customer outcomes
  • Lower absentee rates
  • Higher productivity
  • Fewer customer complaints
  • A more positive work environment

We can’t remove the causes of stress, however, we can make a difference by equipping employees to manage stress and providing the support they need to do a great job.

About the author.

Helen Pettifer FRSA.

Helen Pettifer is Director of Helen Pettifer Training Ltd and a specialist in the fair treatment of vulnerable customers.

She has a background in call centre management and is committed to customer service excellence. Her training ensures front-line staff gain the awareness and resources to confidently identify and respond to signs of vulnerability.

Helen Pettifer is a British Standards Institution (BSI) associate consultant for BS 22458: 2022 Consumer Vulnerability, a Mental Health First Aider, a Suicide First Aider, a Dementia Friend, and a Friends Against Scams Champion. Recognised as a changemaker, she was invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2022.

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