“Then he shouted ‘you f***ing P**i b***h!’. I was shocked and said ‘pardon?’ Then he shouted it again. I said ‘I could report you for that sort of language’ but he carried on yelling and screaming so I ended the call.”
This shocking torrent of foul-mouthed, racist, misogynistic abuse was highlighted by USDAW (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers), as just one example of what call centre agents have to put up with in the name of customer service.
In recent years the problem has grown, as people just aren’t bound by the same social norms over the phone as when they are communicating face-to-face. As a result, agents often have to contend with endless swearing, racial slurs, threats of violence and even sexually explicit comments.
You have a legal and moral obligation to act
If anyone is of a mind to shrug it off with the attitude that ‘it’s just part of the job’, then you are on very dangerous ground.
All employers have a duty under the law to protect workers from work-related violence. The Health and Safety Executive has made it clear that violence includes verbal abuse and threats as well as physical attacks. Furthermore, verbal abuse (and the fear of abuse) is proven to lead to distress and anxiety, and longer-term ill health.
So call centres have both a legal and moral obligation to manage the risk, whether it be: prank or nuisance calls, calls from customers who are upset with their goods or services, threats against the organisation or personal abuse directed at the agent.
What you can do to prevent abuse and limit the damage
1. Be prepared
- Do you make it clear that agents don’t have to put up with abusive calls and can hang up if necessary?
- Are agents allowed to terminate calls if customers are abusive?
- Do you make it clear there will be no retribution against or disciplining of agents who report abuse?
- Do your team leaders provide support to agents when there is an abusive call?
- Are agents trained on the procedure for dealing with abusive or threatening calls?
- Are agents given the opportunity to take a break after a difficult call?
- Are your procedures regularly reviewed at safety committee meetings?
2. Minimise risks
- Ensure staffing levels are sufficient to reduce queuing time
- Utilise the latest call centre quality monitoring software to help agents deal promptly with enquiries
- Avoid unreasonable performance targets
- Ensure the work environment is safe and healthy
- Regularly consult with agents and their Union representative if appropriate
3. In the case of serious or persistent cases of abuse
- The first step is to issue a warning and flag callers who have a history of harassing staff, then deny repeat abusers use of your service
- Create a zero-tolerance policy that reports all violent and/or sexual threats to the police
- There are laws which the police can use to bring criminal charges against the abuser, So you should have in place procedures to identify when it is appropriate to report offences under:
- a. The Communications Act 2003 and the Malicious Communications Act 1988, where it is an offence to send a message through electronic communications which is grossly offensive, obscene or menacing
- b. The Protection from Harassment Act 1997, which can also be used for repeat offenders and issue restraining orders against the harasser
Quality Monitoring and Coaching is the foundation for dealing with abuse
All the advice above is all well and good, but of little use if you aren’t monitoring calls or offering professional coaching to agents on how to deal with abuse.
You need a Quality Monitoring & Coaching solution that provides real-time, comprehensive support and evaluates interactions across every channel. A solution capable of flagging callers who have a history of harassing staff, and a clear policy of zero tolerance for future abusive behaviour.
Furthermore, by delivering coaching in real-time you are better placed to train agents on how to handle angry or abusive customers. It also enables you to provide an immediate way of escalating calls to a manager, if agents feel ill-equipped to handle a customer, or if the conversation has become abusive.
The fact is that abuse is not only harmful to agents, it also damages the brand, so it is essential that you have in place the processes that enable you to deal with every situation, quickly and professionally.
It’s time to put a stop to caller abuse
Like other businesses in the service or retail industry, call centres often operate with the mantra that ‘the customer is always right’. But If the customer is harassing and degrading an agent, the customer simply cannot be right.
Customers may well be frustrated or upset and they have a right to be angry, but their right stops there. Under no circumstances should any agent have to endure abusive treatment from a customer.
If anyone is still in doubt about the need for decisive action, then just imagine if it were your son or daughter, brother or sister on the end of the abusive call.
Now see how acceptable you think it is.