Emotions: the next frontier in customer service efficiency

 It's not always easy to act happy.

It's not always easy to act happy.

Many frontline customer service jobs have two things in common. First, the pay is low with many starting at minimum wage. Second, they require a high degree of emotional labor.

The market for emotional labor may be cheap, but it’s also woefully inefficient. 

I know it’s hard to make a business case for making your people feel better, but there’s always money to be made in efficiency. Companies love efficiency. This post explores how companies use emotional labor ineffeciently, the high costs associated with this problem, and explores some possible solutions.

 

What is emotional labor?

Here’s a brief explanation of emotional labor from a recent blog post about why customer service reps aren’t friendly:

“Emotional labor is a term initially coined by Arlie Hochschild in her 1983 book, The Managed Heart. It refers to the effort required to display appropriate workplace emotions, such as friendliness and enthusiasm. The amount of emotional labor required is based on the difference between the emotions an employee is expected to display, and the emotions an employee actually feels.”

Think about the emotional labor that’s often required in customer service. Employees are expected to convey positive emotions to customers regardless of whether they actually feel this way. They must even remain calm and professional even when a customer treats them as a verbal punching bag and avoid taking it personally.

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you know this isn’t always easy.

 

Cheap, but not efficient

A 2004 study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology found that emotional labor is inversely correlated to hourly wages. The higher the level of emotional labor a job requires, the less that job is likely to pay. Examples come from customer service employees as well as other professions such as social workers, bill collectors, and 911 operators. 

Customer service employees don’t get paid much to act happy.

Cheap doesn’t necessarily mean efficient. There are also substantial costs associated with high degrees of emotional labor. These costs may offset or even surpass any savings associated with low wages. 

Here are just a few examples from high-stress customer service jobs:

  • Turnover. It costs a lot to hire and train employees, even cheap ones.
  • Absenteeism. Extra employees are required when people call out.
  • Productivity. People get less done when they feel emotionally drained.
  • Customer Satisfaction. Service quality suffers when emotions run high.

All of these costs negatively impact profitability.

 

Improving emotional labor efficiency 

Companies often improve efficiency by finding ways to reduce consumption. This strategy works brilliantly for emotional labor. Happy employees require less effort to project the right customer service personality.

Employee engagement is the key to reducing your emotional labor consumption. Engaged employees are overwhelmingly happy in their jobs. They are also highly committed to helping the company achieve its goals. 

Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace Report found that having engaged employees greatly reduced the costs associated with high emotional labor requirements. On average:

  • Turnover is 25% lower
  • Absenteeism is 37% lower
  • Productivity is 21% higher
  • Customer Satisfaction is 10% higher
  • Profitability is 22% higher

That's the business case. Your executives won't listen to a touchy-feely argument about employee happiness, but you'll capture their attention when you start the conversation with numbers they care about. Efficiency is efficiency.

Improving employee engagement isn’t easy, but I’ve assembled a short reading list to help you get started.

  • This post on the using the Employee Engagement Cycle will give you a strategic view of employee engagement. There’s even a short quiz to help you start the conversation.

 

  • Some customers require an unreasonable amount of emotional labor from your employees. Consider asking them to take their business elsewhere. Seth Godin has a nice and simple explanation.

 

  • Customer service leaders in low-margin industries like Trader Joe’s and Costco have found it’s more efficient to pay a higher wage so they can attract better employees. This post explores whether you should consider giving your employees a raise.

When I wrote my customer service book, Service Failure, it took me some time to find the right words to end the final chapter. I finally found a sentence that I think applies here quite well:

Above all else, customer service leaders must remember that while customer service can be difficult, their job is to make great performance easy.

Keep that in mind when you are working with your employees. What can you do to make it easy for them to be happy?