Designing call centers for empathy—can it be done?
Last updated September 21, 2021
There is something that even the most customer-centric companies can’t change or control: the angry or frustrated customer. Customers are, after all, human. And we humans aren’t always at our best when we approach customer service.
Especially now. In light of this great global pivot to stave off the spread of Covid-19 through varying degrees of social distancing, businesses and customer support teams are taxed as they deal with surges in volume, reduced capacity, and customers who are emotional—worried, disappointed, grieving, afraid, impatient—and understandably so. There’s solidarity in being in it together, but the truth is that it’s stressful.
Bearing the brunt of customer frustration has long been the job of agents, working in call centers that might be optimized in any number of ways—for space or efficiency or visibility into real-time dashboards—but probably not for empathy and stress relief. Empathy is what we expect call center employees to bring to the job, not the other way around. This becomes even more complicated when employers don’t know, or can’t control, the home environment of its remote employees.
Empathy is what we expect call center employees to bring to the job, not the other way around.
The conundrum is that support roles are largely filled by employees with a genuine desire to help and who are more adept at flexing the brain’s empathy muscle than most. Yet the very thing that makes a call center employee great with customers is routinely challenged by the difficult nature of the job.
Given high volumes of customer contact and limited resources for handling stress and burnout, it can be hard to decompress after a negative experience. Over time, that stress can take a toll—and that’s why Zendesk approached IDEO in 2019 for help. The company wondered: Were there some practical experiences or workplace tweaks that it could quickly implement to help allow advocates to reset, build community, and replenish customer empathy?
[Related read: Empathy Lab: Building community in the workplace from the inside out]
Of course, the only way to solve for empathy is by employing it as part of the process. “We want to always want to add empathy to a problem, whether it’s from a design standpoint or otherwise,” said Zendesk’s VP of Social Impact Tiffany Apczynski.
Using a two-week design sprint model, designers began a series of advocate interviews, design thinking, and solutions brainstorming to uncover insights and prototype a few concepts that could be quickly tested and iterated on.
“We believed that if we could design for the advocates, then this would enable them to deliver an excellent experience to the end users—and be happier and more fulfilled workers too,” said Carl Fudge, portfolio director at IDEO. “So often the needs of front-line customer service representatives are overlooked, when in fact they have a disproportionate role to play in the delivery of a world-class customer experience. Our design sprint helped us deeply empathize with the advocates before rapidly exploring and testing a variety of solutions in collaboration with the people who would be using them.”
“We believed that if we could design for the advocates, then this would enable them to deliver an excellent experience to the end users—and be happier and more fulfilled workers too.” – Carl Fudge, IDEO
The process included journey-mapping, storyboarding a day in the life of an advocate, and a whole lot of Post-It notes. The first phase of the project was also about simply listening to and synthesizing feedback—and knocking out some easy wins. Different office snacks? Check.
Being open to hearing the harder things is a vital part of the process—yet not to the end of feeling discouraged. The team’s first step was to acknowledge what was working, and one of the first insights was that Zendesk doesn’t have a culture problem. In fact, its advocates in the Madison, Wisconsin office are a passionate group of individuals with an exceptional track record for lifting each other up, being internally motivated, and even incorporating community volunteering into their work. The team pitched in nearly 1,000 hours in 2019 as part of Zendesk’s company-wide 6-Hour Pledge volunteer campaign. The challenge then was to determine how to harness the advocacy team’s strong culture to help solve for some of the pain points.
Every team has challenges, and while a customer can wear an advocate down, the customer isn’t always—or solely—at fault. Instead, high-growth, implementation of new technologies or automation, changing team structures, and the need to keep up with rapid product releases are all issues that can plague any customer support team, anywhere. In Zendesk’s case, the team was feeling some growing pains.
[Related read: Take care of yourself, your team, and your customer—in that order]
Enter the lab: Five key takeaways
The team synthesized their research and insights into five themes that they felt resonated across the board. In short, here are their findings.
1. Meaning in the work
4. Confidence through knowledge
1. Meaning in the work
Customer support has long been an industry plagued (not unlike sales), by quotas and the need to solve, fast. And today, more than ever, data is pervasive and we’re all driven by metrics. Yet understanding the impact beyond the solves is paramount. Sometimes advocates need help seeing that the work they’ve done is work that they’ve saved someone else from having to do.
“I think about the impact of my work. I have a force multiplier… if I solved 10 tickets, that can impact 10,000 agents’ jobs,” one advocate said.
Others found meaning in anecdotal customer feedback, which is hard to put a value on. “A customer wrote, ‘[She] fixed it better than duct tape and a hammer.’ That meant something to me,” said another advocate. These kinds of messages, from one person about another, are the moments that keep us all going.
In the end, the company’s mission matters, but it’s ultimately about what intrinsically motivates each employee. The team recommended identifying one “unofficial” metric that could be surfaced. One idea was to make the “smiles” visible—a wall of customer quotes and feedback that can be added to and revisited. Another idea was to find ways to celebrate and recognize personal goals set by individual advocates.
In the end, the company’s mission matters, but it’s ultimately about what intrinsically motivates each employee.
The concept: Humanize the impact
Zendesk decided to humanize the impact of advocates’ work by implementing a “Team impact dashboard” to visually show the impact that advocates have. This dashboard mixes fun with substance and is based on the idea that the team impact has more traction than individual impact.
“A lot of these concepts also work digitally,” said Raphael Güller, creative director at Zendesk. “Tools like Miro, for example, allow you to recreate team whiteboards online.”
As the Zendesk Advocacy team has moved online, like so many others in the wake of Covid-19, the team worked to take each of these concepts and shift them to work for remote teams as well.
[Related read: Quick, digital, and agile—do these words describe your organization? They should]
2. Community and support
A sometimes misnomer about customer service agents is that the community aspect is built-in. But unlike other teams within an organization, where small talk and team lunches are easily part of a week’s cadence, it can be harder to build camaraderie because there’s always another ticket in the queue.
In situations of high-growth, teams are scaling faster than usual and at some point grow too large to easily connect over lunch or other team-building activities. As an organization swells, teams can begin to feel disconnected—from each other, but also from broader organizational goals. As part of the concepting process, the team shared the example of OXO, a company that designs products for use by everyone, with a true commitment to accessibility. To connect to and remind employees of this common goal, OXO created a collection wall of lost gloves, in every shape, color and size, to represent the diversity of people they design for and serve.
This theme serves as a reminder that every team needs moments of connection, whether that’s monthly team lunches or meaningful rituals that everyone can count on. For example, perhaps it becomes a regular practice to show gratitude through pre-made, easy to fill out cards, or by circulating a trophy or prized item around the office.
As an organization swells, teams can begin to feel disconnected—from each other, but also from broader organizational goals.
In the specific case of a contact center, however, designing for connection and collaboration can be a double-edged sword. Interviews revealed that advocates love helping out their team members and feel guilty for cutting short a conversation or having to say no. The need and desire to connect is there, but so are the distractions at times when they need to get work done. Taking into consideration Zendesk’s open-office environment, one concept suggested was to help prevent unwanted interruptions through the use of visual cues or a buddy system, wherein working in pairs signals that neither person should be disturbed.
The concept: Cultivating community
Instead, Zendesk decided to cultivate community through a “Team huddle board” where advocates can break away from their desks or preferred space or method of working, and physically meet other advocates at the board. The huddle board is meant to inject a moment of lighter-hearted fun and to reinforce a sense of team ownership and spirit.
Remote or virtual teams can achieve something similar through digital meeting space. Beatsense, for example, allows teams to create BeatRooms where they can play and listen to music together. If your company uses Slack, a WFH channel (or an ‘Unglamourous WFH’ channel—pajama and cat photos welcome), can be another space for the team to meet and talk about things that aren’t work-related.
[Related read: How to keep remote agents engaged—and empowered]
3. Moments of relief
Automated scheduling is a boon for managers of large teams, yet scheduling nuances—which often need some human attention or intervention—can make a large difference to advocates. For example, managers must consider whether scheduling advocates on one task or channel for a long period of time becomes, after a certain point, too long to be productive—or, by contrast, too short to get into the flow.
And just as customers want personalization, so do employees. The design team cited the example of Lufthansa airlines, which uses a ranked choice system for flight attendant scheduling so that there are some meaningful choices in a mostly automated process. This may mean that contact centers circulate a personal preference form or set parameters that truly take into account when an employee’s productivity and energy levels are optimal. Three hours on the phone at the end of the day, for example, will be more taxing than three hours at the beginning of the day.
More than anything, call center advocates need to take breaks—which might also mean that they need reminders to take breaks, whether that’s through a message that pops up in their software to prompt a moment of meditation at their desk or a longer break in a designated break, quiet or relaxation room to regroup. Consider, even, providing access to a mediation app.
More than anything, call center advocates need to take breaks—which might also mean that they need reminders to take breaks.
The concept: Promoting focus
Given the frequency of interruption that advocates mentioned, Zendesk decided to implement visual cues or “signals of concentration” to help promote focus. Advocates can opt to change their status to red, meaning “please leave me alone” or green, meaning “sure, talk to me.” This promotes guilt-free focus time, much-needed when they are engaged in fast-paced triage work or switching between live channels of support.
Slack can help here, too. By setting cute ‘away’ messages (read: Amateur homeschooling at the moment!) or some real-talk (read: Knee-deep in a 20-person Zoom meeting) are easy ways to let people know where you’re at, what you’re dealing with, and why it’s not a good time. It can also bring a little levity to the remote workspace.
[Related read: Five tips for remote team harmony]
4. Confidence through knowledge
Contact center employees can’t be endless problem-solvers without training and investment in their knowledge. An advocate’s ability to feel confident in their answer and to take pride in their work depends on how much time they have to check their answer and to learn about new products and updates. This applies to advocates both new and old, but especially to rookies who may be too quick to put an answer forward.
Old paradigms for learning and development are changing. Rather than getting information all at once, the design team recommended supporting continuous learning in “bite-sized shares” paired with an advocacy toolkit that serves as the central source of truth. So much of the sharing between advocates might happen within a ticket, or via a Slack message, but if these moments aren’t captured and shared in a centralized location, they become lost or difficult to find again.
A well-maintained internal knowledge base is one way to solve this challenge, and a Slackbot as the deliverer of “snackable” learning is another.
So much of the sharing between advocates might happen within a ticket, or via a Slack message, but if these moments aren’t captured and shared in a centralized location, they become lost or difficult to find again.
Equally important is creating a structure or matrix so that advocates know who to go to with questions—in general, or for specific products or challenges. McKinsey & Company, for example, has designated Knowledge Champions for every content category, listed in a centralized directory. Another way to help employees with knowledge sharing is to set up “help shifts” or “office hours” or implementing a central community board.
The concept: Sparking connection
To help spark connection, Zendesk introduced playful name tags to encourage advocates to connect beyond work-related chat. These name tags showcase their individual skills, and open up opportunities to network with, and support, one another.
For remote teams, it’s still all in the name. Get creative with email signatures and consider updating them every few days to keep it fun. Encourage the team to share personal details about hobbies, priorities, current work projects, etc. as a way to share more personalized and skills-based information.
5. Connection and contribution
Designing for empathy means creating space for others to help each other, but this isn’t easy to track. When advocates help solve each other’s problems, that’s often invisible support that happens in a moment between just two people—unless there’s a mechanism in place to bubble up acts of altruism — whether that’s digital signage, a Slack channel for #humblebrags, or even an end of day survey, where advocates can name the person who helped them that day.
It’s not just about acts of altruism or support, though. At the core, advocates need to be able to give and receive feedback to each other, and to the leadership team — and to know the right channels through which to do so. This could take the form of a feedback box, an idea Quora, or a process where each advocate’s last solve is evaluated, presenting the opportunity to have a regular, specific conversation around what’s going well and what can be approved upon.
At the core, advocates need to be able to give and receive feedback to each other, and to the leadership team — and to know the right channels through which to do so.
The concept: Recognizing others
Zendesk decided to help advocates recognize others through a playful and ephemeral way: with stickers. These are meant to make invisible acts of kindness more visible. It’s a fun way to give each other high fives, and for some, perhaps the internal incentive to collect them all.
[Check out our digital stickers here.]
Software solutions like Enplug can also allow teams to track fun metrics, things like:
- Mighty collaborator – Person who collaborates most with others on the squad (or in the region, weekly)
- Savvy collaborator – Person who collaborates outside of Advocacy to deliver the solution
- Hero moments – Whenever a customer changes a negative CSAT to a positive one
- WFH innovator – Person who always throws extra energy into meetings, ice breakers, stretches, funny Slack backgrounds
- Medley – Person who changes their work location the most often… living room, kitchen, patio, basement, always different
Any organization can work towards creating an environment that contributes to productive, positive, and resilient workplaces. Some changes can be easy to implement, but it’s important that they’re geared toward your employees and what they actually need. That’s why the first move toward more empathy is to listen. Especially now, as stress mounts and remote employees face isolation, it’s a good time to stop and connect and to introduce ways to bring some light—and empathy—to their day.