Is it time to talk about a more sustainable approach to serving our customers?

At a recent event, I spoke with a Chief Technology Officer (CTO) about how it was not unusual for him to have a day of 14 back-to-back half-hour meetings. He explained that this started during the early part of the pandemic and by 4pm he was completely exhausted and struggling to stay focused and pay attention. However, he added that over time he got used to such a heavy schedule and was able to manage his energy and concentration better.

When I heard this story, I commented that although I often hear stories like this from all kinds of managers in different companies, I often wonder how people end up getting any work done if they are in back to back meetings all day.

I asked a little tongue-in-cheek how we had arrived at his point, given that I had never seen a job description that contained any goals that required a person to attend as many meetings as physically possible.

This caused a few smiles and quite a few nods.

Although my comment was playful, it also contained a serious point and a point that I have made to many leaders about how they should actively manage their time to create the necessary space to really think about and understand the challenges they face.

I thought about that conversation again the other day when I came across some research from Microsoft about the impact on our brains and emotional state when we have back-to-back meetings.

Using an electroencephalography [EEG] cap, Microsoft’s research team was able to monitor the electrical activity in the brains of back-to-back meeting participants. Not surprisingly, they found that back-to-back virtual meetings are stressful, and a series of meetings can reduce the ability to focus and engage.

However, the research also found that introducing short breaks between meetings to allow people to move, stretch, collect their thoughts or have a glass of water can help reduce the cumulative build-up of stress over a series of meetings.

It’s really useful insight and I hope that more managers and their teams embrace the introduction of these short breaks between meetings to reduce stress, support wellbeing and maintain attention levels.

But I have also thought about whether these research findings have a wider application.

In particular, I have considered whether the calls taken by customer service agents might be analogous to a series of very short, back-to-back meetings. If they are, that has implications for how much stress customer service reps have to deal with. This is brought into sharp focus when you consider that the average customer service representative is often expected to be constantly on the phone during an 8-hour shift apart from a 30-minute lunch break and two 15-minute breaks, one in the morning and one in the afternoon.

So, is it any wonder that the contact center industry is facing persistent burnout and high levels of attrition?

Suppose we want to build a more sustainable approach to serving our customers, especially via live channels such as phone or video. If we do, we need to think more clearly and empathetically about our agents and what they are going through.

Now I know that technology is evolving to help with this challenge, and that’s great. But we shouldn’t stop there. Building a more attractive and sustainable contact center model will require us to rethink both contact center operations and their finances.

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