Ben Booth, above, CEO of MaxContact, warns that SMEs’ customer-facing staff are under unsustainable pressure – and looks at how best to support them.
There’s no denying that the past couple of years have been tough for small businesses – and for their customer-facing staff in particular. Those speaking to customers on the phone or email every day, such as sales or customer service teams, have had to deal with greatly increased call volumes, along with more difficult conversations.
With many people struggling during the pandemic, service agents in particular bore the brunt of people’s frustration. According to The Institute of Customer Service, some 60% of customer-service workers experienced hostility at work in 2021.
At the same time, the pandemic hit staffing levels and advisers were being asked to do more with less. They also had to switch to homeworking – almost overnight – turning their kitchen or dining room table into an office. Little wonder, then, that the majority are their wit’s end.
Our own research found that 51% of customer-facing staff at UK SMEs are at risk of burnout. Nearly half (46%) say they dislike their jobs, and are looking to move on.
A closer look at what’s driving the risk of burnout is revealing. While striving to recover from the fallout of the pandemic, SMEs may be – quite understandably – struggling to help their staff do the same.
Half of customer-service employees say that their workload has increased dramatically during the pandemic – without recognition in the form of pay rises or promotions. More than three-fifths (61%) feel they weren’t given enough training to cope with the sudden disruption; while almost half (45%) lack access to dedicated customer-engagement software to help them do their job.
Worryingly, 61% believe that their firm prioritises customer experience over staff wellbeing. I don’t believe for a moment that SME leaders would set out to put their customer-facing teams under such pressure. Businesses clearly value their staff highly, and understand the effect of wellbeing on engagement and productivity. But as businesses fight to rebuild from a turbulent two years, it seems employee burnout may have been an unintended consequence.
Understanding the warning signals
Burnout could have a devastating impact for the UK’s 5.6 million SMEs, where the loss of staff can have a huge impact on small teams. So how can you reduce the risk of burnout among your workforce?
The first step is to recognise the signs. Your managers should, of course, be instinctively aware if workloads are growing, or staffing levels are falling, at your contact centres. But there are other indicators to look out for: higher rates of sickness and employee churn, for example.
The symptoms can also be more subtle. These might include increased cynicism and lower engagement among employees; dampened enthusiasm in team meetings or for staff socials; and a heightened sense that people are ‘zoned out’ while at work. If you suspect burnout, there are some straightforward steps you can take to address it. From our experience of helping SMEs to improve customer service and protect staff wellbeing, I’d recommend the following five measures:
1. Reinforce your recruitment
Sharing the workload among more people will inevitably reduce the pressure on them. But that isn’t easy in the current recruitment market. So, make sure your recruitment strategy and processes are optimised. And communicate what you’re doing to bring in reinforcements to your teams: knowing that help is on the way will calm worries and frustrations.
2. Clarify people’s roles
Continually asking staff to do more, without pay rises or promotion, isn’t sustainable – physically or emotionally. Not only will it tire workers out; it will also lead to resentment. It’s essential that each employee’s responsibilities are made crystal clear, and that you reward people appropriately for taking on more.
3. Prioritise continual learning
Staff are less likely to feel overwhelmed if they’re confident in their roles, and comfortable handling whatever the day throws at them. Well-trained staff will have the knowledge they need to serve customers effectively and efficiently. So, they’ll be less likely to feel the stress and panic that can lead to burnout.
4. Take wellbeing seriously
There are many steps you can take to put wellbeing centre-stage. Arrange regular, one-to-one chats with customer-service agents, and be available for impromptu talks when they need support. Organise social events, train up mental health champions, and give employees access to wellbeing resources. Also, encourage a ‘switch-off culture’, where employees feel able to properly disconnect from work when their shifts end.
5. Bring in technology
Intelligent, digital contact-centre solutions can ease agents’ workloads and increase job satisfaction. For instance, tools such as smart dialling software remove manual tasks, freeing time up for more complex calls. Meanwhile, good scripting and on-call coaching can help people to deal with difficult situations.
Protect your competitive edge
Small businesses’ efforts to get back on their feet mustn’t be at the expense of staff wellbeing. If overstretched for too long, employees will – through no fault of their own – provide poor customer service. And they’ll eventually hit burnout, or leave before they do. That will spread your team even more thinly, reducing service quality even further.
Employees working in customer-facing roles are your competitive advantage: they work hard to delight your customers at every touchpoint. Make sure you’re repaying them with the support they need and deserve.