Last reviewed on
For workers in contact centres verbal abuse can have the same negative impact as a physical assault. Verbal abuse can be as serious as physical assault and no-one would expect people to put up with being punched repeatedly at work.
Abusive calls can be very distressing, particularly when they involve personal abuse. The impact of dealing with numerous abusive calls in a day or week can have a very real impact on the health and wellbeing of individuals.
In the past call handlers in the Student Loans Company (SLC) were instructed to deal as best they could with aggressive callers, ending the call if it became abusive. However, the stress involved can cause digestive problems, stress, high blood pressure and headaches.
The SLC decided a new approach was needed to deal with a small but increasing number of difficult callers.
Immediate results A trainer at the SLC Alexis Farndell developed an innovative new 'phone rage' course to deal with the problem. The course had an immediate effect on staff morale and customer responses.
Customer complaints dropped by 20% the first year the course ran and fewer calls were escalated to team leaders. The result was a healthier happier workforce who felt empowered to deal with aggressive callers.
The SLC believe they have not only a legal but a moral duty to protect staff from verbal abuse in the workplace and want employees to recognise is that it’s not part of their job just to put up with it.
From victims to controllers The training aimed to turn contact centre staff from victims of abuse to controllers of the situation. This approach helps individuals to analyse what was going on in people’s minds when they become aggressive and train staff in how to defuse the situation.
A psychologist was brought into the company for a few days to see what was happening and to help develop appropriate training. The response was overwhelmingly positive with people clambering to get on the course. Alexis commented, “We actually get management asking to go on the course too because they have to deal with the escalated calls.”
The psychology of calm The training involves showing call handlers how to make subtle changes in their responses when they sense a customer is becoming aggressive.
Their responses are designed to take the customer back into a calm state of mind.
As a customer becomes aggressive advisers use their training to analyse the psychology of what’s going on and come back with very carefully considered responses.
These techniques work in 98% of cases Alexis explains, “however, if someone is determined to vent their spleen, no matter what then we get behind our staff 100% in discontinuing that call and provide any support that might be necessary.
“Staff can hang up and think, 'I tried my absolute best'. We as a company never contradict what they have done.”
Calming questions Staff at the SLC now understand that it is much easier to get angry with a company than a person.
They are trained to recognise changes in a caller’s tone that lets them know they are becoming aggressive. When this happens they know to drop the company persona and tell the caller that they can hear they are unhappy and personalise the conversation.
Alexis explains, “We ask the caller for some security questions that the caller will have to think about, for example which course they studied. This helps the aggressive caller connect with the rational thinking part of their brain. The advisors talk very slowly and calmly while they take the callers information and they repeat their name.
“These are called neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) techniques. It’s great because it can be done really naturally without the caller even knowing a technique is being used.”
Setting boundaries The SLC has a strong ethos that people should be free to draw their own boundaries when it comes to dealing with bad language. Some people are known to have a real problem with swearing and shouldn’t have to listen to it.
The training gives call handlers strategies for asking customers not to swear. For example they might say, “I’m sorry but I can’t concentrate when you swear could please stop.”
Ongoing success The course has been so successful that Alexis has trained people in the NHS, Metropolitan Police, and Glasgow Housing, amongst many others. The main focus is on companies that cannot direct aggressive customers elsewhere.
Alexis is also now the main link from the SLC to Healthy Working Lives in trying to support smaller organisations develop systems for use in their workplace to protect staff from verbal abuse.
NewsletterTo be kept up to date with our services and activities, please subscribe to our newsletter by filling this form