Supporting your customers starts with supporting your agents
With customer engagement at record highs, nearly 70% of agents report feeling overwhelmed. Here’s why investments in the wellbeing of your employees benefit your customers, too.
Published May 14, 2021
Last updated October 14, 2021
If there’s one silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that we’re all finally talking about mental health in the workplace. And unlike masked social gatherings or 24 hour-a-day pajamas, that’s not likely to change once things get under control.
“This is something that’s going to stick with us,” said Frances Brittingham, a customer experience manager at Calm, a meditation app. “People run, people do yoga, people maintain their physical health, and we are starting to recognize that maintaining your mental health is just as important.”
According to a recent study, more than 1 in 4 adults in the United States now suffer from some form of depression. This is three times higher than before the pandemic. Amid these alarming stats, Brittingham says Calm, which offers resources like guided meditation, has seen record use of its app.
In the month after the pandemic began, downloads of Calm nearly doubled the total number of downloads from the entire previous year. And partnerships with companies have taken off.
“Employers were sort of figuring out how to talk about [mental health] with their employees,” she said. “They recognized at the start of the pandemic that now’s the time.”
Prioritizing mental health starts with understanding new challenges
There’s no doubt that it’s been a crazy year, for everyone, including customer support agents. Not only has customer engagement reached record highs, but teams have also been juggling longer hours and the isolation of remote work.
Customer engagement is up 30% globally, compared to last year
No wonder 70 percent of agents report feeling overwhelmed, according to the 2021 Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report.
Here are just a few of the changes impacting support teams:
- Customer engagement is up 30% globally, compared to last year
- 50% of support teams are fully remote
- 36% of teams have had to lay off agents
Shifting work environments mean new challenges to consider, particularly when thinking about mental health. Type in “Zoom fatigue” and a whole host of articles pop up, from the Harvard Business Review to Psychiatric Times. But there are other things to consider, too.
Teams are having to adjust to the changing expectations and needs of customers, all while facing the challenges of working remotely. For some, this means staffing new channels or learning new technology; for others, this means juggling the responsibilities of family, or dealing with less-than-perfect WFH setups.
Only 54 percent of agents reported having the tools to succeed remotely
With offices around the globe, Lucidworks, a search and AI company, found that employees faced a whole host of unique challenges, including sick family members, Zoom kindergarten, and even rolling blackouts that prevented them from getting online.
“This put a lot of additional pressure on team members that we might not have encountered in the previous year,” said Product Manager Lesley Heizman. “Luckily our employee engagement team had a lot of resources in place.”
Support teams thrive on collaboration and shared knowledge, but working remotely means that many teams have had to learn new skills and processes just to stay connected. And that’s if they’re lucky.
Only 54 percent of agents reported having the tools to succeed remotely, which means that half are struggling to meet the growing needs of customers without the right tools in place.
Here are the biggest changes to agent work (according to agents)
- Customer expectations have changed (41%)
- The questions I get have changed (31%)
- Longer hours (28%)
- Leadership’s expectations have changed (26%)
- I staff a different channel or channels (16%)
Empower agents, improve your relationships with customers
It’s no longer taboo to talk about mental health in the workplace. In fact, it’s expected. And it’s in every business’ interest to do so.
Why? No one gives their best when they aren’t feeling their best. Numerous studies have shown that happier humans make better employees. For support teams, this means better experiences for customers, too.
“From a customer experience perspective, this not only impacts your relationship with your employees, but it trickles down to impact your relationship with customers,” said Brandon Tidd, at 729 Solutions, a custom development shop. “Customers can pick up on whether employees are satisfied in their role, if their emotional well-being is being accounted for and that’s so important to the bottom line.”
“From a customer experience perspective, this not only impacts your relationship with your employees, but it trickles down to impact your relationship with customers."Brandon Tidd, Zendesk architect at 729 Solutions
With the majority of its workforce already remote, 729 Solutions was uniquely positioned to guide its clients through the transition. For many, this meant striking a balance between checking in too much and not enough.
“You don’t want to give somebody too long of a leash so that they feel isolated from the process,” Tidd said, “but at the same time, you don’t want to go too far in the other direction, constantly messaging them and checking in, even if you have the best of intentions.”
55 percent of agents say that a supportive work environment is the most important thing they need to do their job well. And being more supportive starts with listening. According to Tidd, leadership at 729 Solutions has an “open Slack” policy and employees are free to contact them with any concerns.
55 percent of agents say that a supportive work environment is most important
Beyond keeping communication channels open with agents, this also keeps them open with customers. Since agents interact with customers on a daily basis, their frustrations can often mirror what a customer is thinking and feeling.
Areas for improvement
According to our recent global survey, these are top three things that agents feel their company could be doing better:
- Being more agile or responsive to changing customer needs
- Adding tools to improve remote work
- Offering new ways for customers to get in touch
“I think this was a good litmus test,” said Tidd. “There were a lot of people that saw that maybe their company wasn’t as well prepared, and then there were other companies that just knocked it out of the park in terms of bending over backwards for employees.”
These experiences, he predicts, both good and bad, won’t soon be forgotten.
Becoming “employee-centric” in 2021 and beyond
For companies looking to retain talent and build happier, more productive workforces, prioritizing employee well-being must go well beyond this global health crisis.
In fact, research points to a worldwide talent shortage that could cost economies an estimated $8.5 trillion by 2030, if left unchecked. Companies that put their employees first are not only investing in their well-being, but are also laying the foundations for longer term success.
To retain talent and build happier, more productive workforces, prioritizing employee well-being must go well beyond this global health crisis
Here are some tips to help companies refocus on the health of their employees and their business:
Find ways to connect, not only within teams, but across teams
Whether or not you plan to bring employees back into the office, giving them opportunities to connect beyond their shared responsibilities or teams helps to build a sense of community. At Lucidworks, employees have been able to participate in monthly group events, including, most recently, a bicoastal sound bath session.
“It’s a way to get outside of who you normally work with,” said Heizman. “Often you get so siloed in your areas that it can feel lonely if you don’t engage with each other.”
Another idea is to create regular meetups or shared interest groups. This works for 729 Solutions, where the only rule is that “you can’t talk about work,” said Tidd.
Hold space for people to share their feelings
Collectively experiencing a difficult year brought mental health issues into sharp focus. But employees faced challenges long before the pandemic, and they’ll continue to do so long after it’s over. Holding spaces for employees to safely connect and share their perspectives provides opportunities for them to give and receive support.
A parenting group at Lucidworks meets every other week and brings in outside experts to discuss topics that are top of mind for working parents at the company. It’s an opportunity to vent, but also an opportunity to learn.
“Some of us have younger kids and we’re struggling with watching them, some have older kids and they're struggling to get them to complete assignments,” said Heizman. “Each scenario takes a different toll on mental health.”
Encourage mental health days
Mental health days are key to alleviating stress and reducing burnout, and they can work even if you’re managing a 24/7 support operation. Creating redundancies within the team can make it easier for agents to feel like they can take time off. “They feel like they can take that break,” says Brittingham, “because they have teammates who are able to step up and fill the gaps.”
Allowing agents to stagger things like “Flexi Fridays” or changing schedules to provide more flexibility around busy times like childcare drop off or pickup can also provide some much needed support.
Listen to feedback
Whether it’s internal ESAT surveys, open door policies, or regular team meetings, managers should be checking in with agents. Issues can’t be fixed if no one knows about them, and often agents have insights that can lead to better products and happier customers. But that’s just the first step. Feedback is only useful if there’s buy-in from the top.
Business is changing, likely for good, and companies should navigate these next phases in lock step with their employees. Being able to deliver the resources needed to succeed and thrive in this new world starts with paying attention.