“The rage builds up like pressure in a closed vessel and eventually, if you keep pumping the pressure in, that closed vessel will explode,” says Paul Patterson, from the Australian School of Business. Typically, frontline staff in all industries encounter irate customers or clients at some point. And, it may be tough hanging on the end of the phone waiting for an answer or a real live person to deal with the query but being on the other end is much worse.
The Australian Service Union’s Linda White says call centre staff are among those likely to suffer serious abuse. “People do think they can say anything on the phone,” she said. “The normal ways in which you would deal with someone face to face go out the window. “People say and rage way more than they would if they were looking at someone across the counter.
“The phone seems to act as a barrier and they often treat people on the phone in a completely different way to how they would someone who is face to face, they say things they would never say in person.”
Professor Patterson is part of a research team which recently conducted a study of customer rage across Australia, the United States, Thailand and China. The aim was to determine the triggers of rage, identify tipping points and recommend courses of action for reducing and managing rage incidents. “Customers do not typically go into rage instantaneously,” he said. “Typically what we found was customers had to complain two or three times and it still wasn’t fixed. “It’s only then, over time, emotions build up from frustration, to annoyance, to mild anger, to real anger, and then they explode.
“The frontline employees, who occasionally cause the problem, but more often than not don’t, they’re the people, particularly in call centres, who bear the brunt.”
The ASU, which represents most of the country’s call centre employees, has been active in trying to assess the impact of customer rage on workers. “Our experience is that certainly it’s been going on for a long time and continues to be a source of stress for people who work in call centres,” says Ms White. “We’ve done surveys of members and people in call centres more generally, and it always rates highly the abuse people cop over the phone. “And the stress that it metes out on those at the receiving end, often for reasons that they can’t in any way avoid.”
The West Australian-based health insurer, HBF, employs more than 180 people in its contact centres. Each day they deal with dozens of calls from customers, with topics ranging from simple insurance questions to peoples’ personal health information. The insurer’s Brendon Cappelletti says while it’s rare for customers to become abusive on the phone, it does happen, and staff receive regular training to help defuse situations. “When you boil it down there’s always a reason behind it,” he said. “A health issue or something that’s stressing them out and they do get quite emotive, we get our fair share.” Contact centre staff are trained to calm abusive people down and help resolve problems. “What we instil in our frontline is not to take it personally when people do get angry; it’s not a personal attack against them,” Mr Cappelletti said. “They have to really focus on their reactions to it because it can either make or break a good member interaction. “We train them on how to remain calm and relaxed to try to see through the situation to the solution.” “Give them time to calm down and show them they’re going to support them through that interaction.”
HBF’s member services people development manager, Monique Townder, says staff affected by abuse are routinely offered assistance. “Every frontline person knows they have a support avenue,” she said. “A next level up or a team leader or manager they can pass the call onto or advise members they can call them back. “If they have got someone that’s angry they know they can get someone else to take over that call.” Ms Townder says serious abuse cases are rare and usually short-lived. “There’s a couple that really wanted to hunt you down and find out where you live,” she said. “But as long as you’re honest about it you can generally work through things.”
Professor Patterson says call centre rage is on the increase and Australian businesses have been slow to address the issue. “You’ve only got to read comments in the media about why people are now shopping online,” he said. “They’re all saying the customer service levels in Australia are just so pathetic. “Companies have not responded at all, certainly not in this country.” He says almost all cases of customer rage stem from a sense of lack of fairness. “What happens to customers is some of their fundamental psychological needs get damaged, for example, our self-esteem, or threats to equity or fairness when you get cheated,” he said. “They get damaged, they get violated, they get threatened and this is what underpins customers exploding; that plus the build up over time.” Professor Patterson says the worst offending businesses are the major retailers and telcos, where a focus on productivity increases is coming at the expense of customer satisfaction. He says that often means the person copping the rage of the customer is rarely responsible for aggravating them.
Saul Berman has worked as a call centre manager for the past 18 years. He says the belief most call centres are understaffed is a myth. “You can’t have enough staff,” he said. “The flow of phone calls doesn’t come in an even spread throughout the day. “You might have 30 phone calls between 9 and 9:30 and then people might call in again during lunch breaks. “And then at 3 o’clock you might have one call and a bunch of staff members sitting around doing nothing. So, we have to get our rostering right to minimise costs because it’s going to be the customer that pays for that, added on to their product or service.”
Linda White says businesses that are yet to improve their handling of customer rage issues will soon begin to lose valuable staff to more pro-active companies. “In the end it comes down to what people are like on the other end of the phone,” she said. “If people rage on the end of the phone it’s really the preventative measures and the procedures for dealing with it that become paramount. “There are employers who realise that good customer service people are hard to come by; that it is an absolute skill and you don’t want to burn them out.”