5 Simple Changes That Will Boost Your Customer Service

Distractions are the bane any customer service employee.

They slow you down, break your concentration, and ultimately lead to service failures. In one silly email exchange, a customer service rep took three emails to answer a simple question that could have been answered in one, simply because she was too distracted to concentrate for just a moment.

Worst case scenario?

The cumulative impact of all that distraction leads to something called Directed Attention Fatigue that has symptoms similar to Attention Deficit Disorder. This can eventually lead to the dreaded burnout.

Let's face it. You're probably distracted right now. Am I right?

The good news is you can do something about it. Here are five simple changes to your normal routine that can help.

Spend Time Outdoors

My wife, Sally, and I spent a lot of time outdoors while vacationing in Ireland last month.

We hiked, biked, and even took a couple of boat rides. Here's an example from a hiking and boating trip we took through the Gap of Dunloe.

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Over the course of the week we felt increasingly relaxed and clear headed. The "Black Belt" Sudoku puzzles that sometimes take me two hours to complete suddenly started taking less than 15 minutes.

Regular, outdoor exercise is good for the head that way. It's calming, reduces stress, and restores your ability to concentrate. The challenge, as Sally and I discovered when we returned from vacation, is spending regular time outdoors while you're juggling your busy schedule.


Hide Your Cell Phone

It's increasingly common to see customer service employees handling their personal cell phones.

They linger on desks at workstations. They're toted in pockets as retail associates serve customers and restaurant servers assist their guests. 

The problem is your cell phone causes distraction that leads to errors. One study found that just having your cell phone present increased errors by more than three times!

Try putting your cell phone away when you're serving customers. As in, out of sight. You'll be more focused. And, as a special bonus, your phone will be much more interesting when you haven't been checking it every five minutes.


Turn Email Off Between Uses

Email is a multitasking nightmare. 

The typical person has email up on their computer all the time. Incoming message notifications constantly distract them from other work, or else the waiting program tempts them to check messages every five minutes.

Unfortunately, this leads to less effective communication. People respond less carefully. They miss subtle cues about the sender's real intentions. Their lack of attention inevitably leads to unnecessary back and forth.

A recent study concluded that the average employee wastes 24 percent of their day on useless email.

The way to reduce this problem is to focus on email and then not focus on email. Give messages your full attention and then shut down your email program entirely. Set regular intervals when you'll open up email and check it and then resist the urge to check email outside of these times.


Turn On Your Red Light

Open offices are an open invitation for multitasking.

You're constantly distracted by your neighbors. Colleagues drop by your workstation to chat, ask a question, or just make faces at you. (I apologize to everyone I've done that to.) There's even some speculation that open offices pose a health risk.

A client of mine has a good solution to reduce distractions in their open office.

Each workstation has two small lights above it, one red and one green. A red light means "Please don't interrupt me - I'm busy." A green light means it's okay to disturb that person.

In many ways, the light system is similar to an open or closed office door.

You don't need a light system to create a busy signal in your open office. I've seen other workplaces use simple signs. The key is to send a clear, but polite signal to co-workers that you're immersed in something and don't wished to be disturbed.


Try the Pomodoro Technique

I discovered this simple technique a few years ago, and it works wonders for projects that require a little concentration.

You can watch the short video on the Pomodoro Technique website, but here's a quick summary:

  1. Pick a task that needs your focus.
  2. Set a timer. I use 13 minutes (my lucky number), but the Pomodoro Technique suggests 25.
  3. Block out all distractions that aren't related to that task. This includes hiding your cell phone, shutting down email, and turning on your red light.
  4. Focus on the task without distraction until the timer goes off.
  5. Re-evaluate.

Using this technique, I've often found myself so absorbed in a task that I instantly re-set the timer when it goes off. The end result is the task is completed faster and at a higher quality than if you did it in bits and pieces between other distractions.


Are Your Alert or Distracted?

The theme of all these suggestions is concentration. 

It seems so simple, but concentration is a rarity among today's customer service professionals. There's just too many distractions that get in the way. 

A true customer service master understands these distractions and takes steps to block or eliminate them so each customer receives full attention.

The Controversial Workplace Ban You Need to Consider

Look around you. Do you see your cell phone?

It's probably nearby. In a pocket, on your desk, in your bag, or even in your hand. Perhaps you're reading this blog post on your cell phone.

Now, let me ask you another question. Does your company have a cell phone policy?

Many do. These types of policies are common for customer-facing employees. For example, a study from Contact Center Pipeline found that 87 percent of contact centers have a workplace cell phone policy.

Most policies say that your phone can't interfere with your job duties. I've uncovered data that suggests the only way to do that is to ban cell phones completely.

Why Cell Phones Should Be Banned

A 2015 study from researchers Cary Stothart, Ainsley Mitchum, and Courtney Yehnert at Florida State University provide some compelling evidence for instituting a workplace cell phone ban.

The study, summarized nicely in this Harvard Business Review article, had participants complete a Sustained Attention to Response Task (SART). The subjects were seated at a computer and were asked to click on some items as they appeared on the screen while avoiding others. 

The participants' error rates were measured after one round of the activity to establish a baseline. They were then asked to complete a second round where subjecs were selected to be in one of three groups (unbeknownst to them):

  • Control Group
  • Group Receiving Text Messages
  • Group Receiving Phone Calls

The researchers sent participants in one group several text messages while they were completing the second SART. Another group received several phone calls during the second round. A third group didn't receive any texts or calls from the experimenters so it could act as the control.

The researchers found that just hearing a text or call notification from your cell phone can hurt work quality. Here are the error rate increases for each group from Round 1 to Round 2:

Some increase in error rate is expected. People have the attention span of a gnat these days. But, look at the difference between the control group and the groups distracted by their cell phones!

Amazingly, the study found that the phone notifications had a lingering effect. Participants made errors at the same rate after the notification as they did during the notification. That's because our mind wanders away from the task at hand and thinks about who might be calling or texting.

This data tells us the mere presence of a personal cell phone is a subliminal invitation to multitask. Not only is multitasking bad for customer service, sustained multitasking can ultimately lead to something called Directed Attention Fatigue which has symptoms identical to ADD.

So, it makes sense to ban cell phones in the workplace if you want to prevent service failures.


The Case Against Banning Cell Phones

Your employees are adults.

Banning their personal phones completely smacks of big-brotherism. It feels like an unwelcome intrusion and sends a message that you don't trust your employees to handle themselves.

Some might argue that these types of workplace policies lead to higher rates of employee burnout. While I didn't research that question in my recent burnout study, it's certainly a believable hypothesis.

It also opens the door for hypocrisy. Show me a manager who isn't walking around with his or her cell phone in hand! Letting the boss do one thing while employees do another isn't a great way to build morale.

And finally, there's the amazing story from Rackspace where employees used their personal cell phones to save the day when the phone system went down. You can read all about it by downloading the first chapter of my upcoming book.


Where Do You Come Out?

So, should you ban cell phones at work or not? Here's my preferred approach to the issue:

  1. Share the data with employees to make them aware.
  2. Discuss ways that distractions can hurt service.
  3. Let them decide what to do, but hold them accountable for results.

I always want to treat customer service employees with respect. This includes implementing as few policies as possible. 

Some employees can deliver outstanding service with a cell phone nearby. Others can't. I'd let them decide for themselves. What matters most is the quality of service they provide.

Are Dual Monitors Bad For Customer Service Agents?

You've probably heard about the research.

The line goes like this, "Studies show that employees are more productive using dual monitors than they are using a single monitor." Many contact center leaders believe this strongly enough that they've got their agents all set-up on dual monitor rigs.

There's just one problem. This research isn't really so conclusive.

Many of these studies were commissioned by companies that make monitors. There's this white paper from Dell. NEC produced another study. There's even a study from Fujitsu that suggests we actually need three monitors to get work done.

Then there's Farhad Manjoo. He wrote this article for the New York Times in 2009 championing the need for dual monitors. It was influential enough that Dell quoted Manjoo's article in their research report.

In 2014, Manjoo wrote another article for the New York Times claiming he was wrong. Two monitors really weren't better than one. He realized that using just one monitor allowed him to be much more focused.

Productivity is important in contact centers, but so is focus. So, can these studies be trusted? Or, is the dual monitor trend actually bad for customer service agents?

Source:  Joe Grigg

Source: Joe Grigg

What The Studies Actually Say

The actual studies are very muddled.

The Fujitsu study claims that three monitors increase productivity by 35.5 percent. Unfortunately, the document I found doesn't detail what was tested or how.

The Dell white paper references a 2011 study they commissioned, but I spent some time trying to find the actual text and couldn't locate it.

They did package the results in a white paper that included results from other studies too. The 2011 study measured productivity where participants had to simultaneously work with multiple documents. The activities involved reviewing information in one document (a spreadsheet, text document, website, etc.) and adding information into a second document.

Oddly, the Dell white paper doesn't report any productivity gains from their 2011 study. They instead reference this study from the Georgia Institute of Technology that revealed a 15 percent productivity gain when participants used two monitors instead of one.

The Dell study conspicuously left one big detail out of their report. The Georgia Institute of Technology study also showed that single monitor users performed tasks slightly faster than dual monitor users the second time they engaged in a similar activity. 

Finally, there's the NEC study. 

Like the Dell study, they tested participant productivity while working on multiple documents at the same time. Their surprising conclusion was that a larger single monitor provided even better productivity gains than a dual monitor set-up.

What the studies don't describe is also telling.

None of them that I could find measured productivity when participants were only engaged in one task at a time. And, none of them specifically focused on contact centers.


Dual Monitor Danger

Using dual monitors has one clear drawback: they encourage multitasking. 

Multitasking causes a few problems:

All of these issues can negatively impact key contact center metrics:

  • Decreased CSAT due to poor customer focus
  • Increased handle time due to poor focus and memory
  • Increased turnover due to increased DAF-related burnout

Worst of all, multitasking is addictive. The more we do it, the more we crave doing it.

Giving a contact center agent two monitors is liking putting a huge plate of cookies in front of the Cookie Monster and telling him to eat slowly. It ain't gonna happen.


Contact Center Applications

It seems there are plusses and minus to a dual monitor set-up. There are situations where two monitors make sense in the contact center. There are also situations where they don't.

Let's look at both, using data from the computer monitor manufacturers' studies.

Dual Monitors = Good. Having two monitors can help when agents need to look at two programs or screens simultaneously. For example, an agent might need to view a knowledge base while entering data into a CRM.

Dual Monitors = Bad. Having two monitors can hinder service when agents only need to look at one screen at a time. For example, an agent handling phone calls and using a CRM to handle the entire transaction.

Jeremy Watkin wrote a great post on the Communicate Better Blog about the distinction between using dual monitors and not using dual monitors. One suggestion that Watkin makes is to turn off the second monitor when you're not using it. It's an effective way to discourage multitasking, while keeping the second monitor available for times when it's needed.

My suggestion is to spend some time watching your agents interact with their dual monitor set-ups. Note whether they are truly productivity machines or if they're constantly bouncing their focus from one screen to the next.

Just for fun, here's a survey to see how many contact centers are using dual monitor set-ups.

Why We're Addicted to Multitasking

We’re not good at multitasking.

Most of us know this. Our brains are only able to process one conscious thought at a time. Try to do more and speed and quality inevitably suffer.

We continue to multitask despite this knowledge. In a very real sense, we’re addicted.

This post explores the cause of our multitasking addiction. If you can read all the way through without checking your Twitter feed, you’ll see some solutions. You probably won’t like them because it’s going to feel like telling the Cookie Monster that cookies are only a sometimes treat. 

I’m also departing from my usual format and putting all the links at the bottom of the post. It’s my meager attempt to make multitasking slightly less inviting.


Why We’re Addicted

Multitasking is really about attention. 

We are easily able to focus our attention when we’re doing just one thing. Trying to do more than one thing requires us to focus and re-focus attention.

The part of our brain responsible for focusing attention is called the Reticular Activating System or RAS. It sorts through a deluge of internal thoughts and external signals to decide where our conscious brain should tune in.

Unfortunately, the RAS has an achilles heel: novelty.

Novelty’s ability to instantly capture our attention used to be a big advantage when we lived simpler lives. One of your ancestors might have been foraging for berries in the woods, humming a merry tune, when they suddenly spotted a bear. You’re here today because the novelty of seeing a bear grabbed their attention away from the delightful bliss of berries and tunes. 

Today’s world is an overload of novelty. 

Our phones and computer screens are a constant barrage of buzzes, beeps, and flashes. We have two monitors with multiple software programs running at once. Co-workers constantly interrupt us in our open plan office spaces. 

It doesn’t stop when we get home. We have television, DVR, Netflix, and video games. Our friends are only a text, Facebook message, or FaceTime session away. 

The rational argument for multitasking is managing multiple priorities. That might hold some weight if we were actually working on something useful. We’re not. Our RAS doesn’t make decisions about where to focus attention based on an activity’s relative usefulness. It’s a sucker for anything novel.

Finding something novel triggers a release of dopamine in our brains. Dopamine feels good. In his book, Your Brain at Work, David Rock calls this the “toward” response. It tells us that whatever we’re doing, we should do more of it.

And we do.


How We Become Multitasking Junkies

Chronic multitasking causes a few problems that heighten the addiction.

One issue is our dopamine receptors become dulled from overuse. That means we have to multitask more to get the same effect. Checking Facebook ten times a day isn’t quite doing it, so you might have to up it to twenty. 

Another problem caused by chronic multitasking is it lessens our ability to filter useful information from meaningless junk. A high priority project receives exactly the same attention as our latest status update. The end result is multitasking for the sake of multitasking.

While reading this post, how many times have you been tempted to stop and check something else? 

Email, IM, Facebook, Twitter, text, Pintrest, Vine, Instagram, Snapchat, your stock portfolio, Candy Crush, whatever. There’s no real purpose to it, just the irresistible urge to multitask.

It gets worse.

Chronic multitasking can lead to something called Directed Attention Fatigue or DAF. Here are just a few of the common symptoms:

  • Distractibility
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Indecisiveness
  • Difficulty starting and finishing tasks

This doesn’t bode well for any job that requires any concentration. It’s why we feel mentally exhausted at the end of a work day that was mostly spent sitting in a chair. 

Strangely, we feel physically exhausted too. That’s because all that concentration actually requires a lot of physical energy. 

And, because multitasking is really a less efficient way to work, we end the day with more work to get done. Our brilliant solution is often to work more hours and do more multitasking.

Psychologists have compared DAF to ADD. Different conditions, same impact. Our smart phones and multi-monitor set ups are basically giving us ADD.



Quitting the Multitasking Habit

If you’re addicted to multitasking, you’re not going to like this part. 

Quitting isn’t easy.

Perhaps you’ve been telling yourself you can quit when you want to, but you just don’t want to. Sure, you’d know you’ve hit rock bottom if you fall into a fountain at the mall while texting, but you haven’t done that yet. Not like that lady on TV. 

There are some solutions. You need to be committed to make them work. It’s going to be difficult at first, but gradually you’ll feel better.

One solution is to change the way you design your workspace. Go minimalist. Cut out distractions like a second monitor. Clear off your desk to create a more calming environment. 

The next step is changing your work habits. 

Give yourself permission to focus on one task at a time. Keep other computer programs closed when they’re not in use. Check email and then close email. Check Facebook and then close Facebook. Concentrate on creating that PowerPoint deck and then move on to something else.

This works even if it’s only for a short duration. I will frequently set the timer on my smart phone for 13 minutes and tell myself to focus on a single task during that time. Something amazing often happens. By the end of the 13 minutes, I’m fully absorbed and want to keep going without interruption. 

No problem. Just hit the timer again for another go. Pretty soon I’m crushing tasks by giving one thing at a time my full attention.

The final solution is perhaps most important. You need to give your brain a break. 

Shut everything down. Take a walk to get some fresh air. Researchers have found that being outside in nature works wonders at counteracting the effects of Directed Attention Fatigue. 

Your brain will feel better after getting some rest. It will be more alert and focused. The great part about that is you can get more done while your co-workers continue to spin around on the hamster wheel called multitasking.

The big question is can you kick the habit? 


Helpful Links

Here’s a collection of links to help you expand your knowledge of multitasking and its addictive qualities. Some are useful and others are just for fun.

How Detoxing Our Brains Can Improve Customer Service

A constant stream of information can be overwhelming.

A constant stream of information can be overwhelming.

This post originally appeared on the Salesforce Blog. You can also read my latest Salesforce blog post, "The Biggest Myth in Customer Service."


The ability to pay attention is one of the most important customer service skills. It helps us understand our customers’ needs and identify solutions to make them happy.

Unfortunately, this ability can become strained or even compromised as our brains respond to an ever-increasing avalanche of distractions. When this happens, we get irritated, and find it difficult to pay attention. And when that happens, service failures become increasingly likely.

What’s the cure to this malady? Our brains need to go on an information diet so they can detox and recover.


Causes and Symptoms

study conducted at the University of San Diego estimated the average person consumes 34 gigabytes of information per day. That 2009 estimate for the average person is certainly much lower than what a typical customer service employee is exposed to today.

Today’s customer service representatives are overwhelmed by information. They speak to customers and co-workers face to face, answer phones, respond to emails, text, chat, Tweet, and post on Facebook. For an increasing number of people, one computer screen is not enough, so now we have two. Retail stores wire their associates to headsets for constant communication. Food servers juggle several orders simultaneously. A new email flashes on the screen to interrupt our train of thought, only to be interrupted by a hovering co-worker who is in turn interrupted by a ringing phone.

For many of us, the information avalanche continues when our work day is over. We listen to the radio or talk on our mobile phone during our commute. When we get home we turn on the television, surf the web, text our friends, post, update, and share. It doesn’t even end at night as more and more of us bring our smart phones to bed.

This high volume of information takes its toll on our ability to concentrate. Continuously focusing and re-focusing our attention can leave our brains feeling exhausted. Without enough rest and recovery, it can eventually lead to a condition called Directed Attention Fatigue.

Here are some common symptoms of Directed Attention Fatigue (B. Cimprich, 2007):

  • Distractibility
  • Irritability
  • Impatience
  • Indecisiveness
  • Difficulty starting and finishing tasks

 None of these qualities are conducive to outstanding customer service.

As the condition worsens, it becomes increasingly difficult to pay attention. Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell coined the term “Attention Deficit Trait” or ADT to refer to this brain overload effect. In a 2005 article in Harvard Business Review, Hallowell described a striking similarity between ADT and the well-known medical condition ADD (attention deficit disorder).

Hallowell observed that the number of patients he treated with ADT symptoms had increased ten times from 1995 to 2005. You can only wonder what that number looks like today.


How to Detox Your Brain

Our brains need time to recover from the constant bombardment of information and stimuli that vie for our attention. Here are five strategies you can employ that will put you in a better mood, increase your mental acuity, and improve your ability to pay attention to customers.


1. Take information breaks throughout the day

What does the typical customer service employee do on their break? They continue the information overload on their personal phone by checking email, responding to texts, and posting on Facebook. A better strategy is to stop the overflow of information completely. Try taking a walk or having a conversation with a co-worker.


2. Impose a curfew on electronics before bed

Sleep naturally restores our ability to focus, but our ability to get a good night’s sleep can be hampered if we continue to consume information as we go to bed. Sleep experts recommend shutting down electronic devices an hour before bed time to help improve the quality of sleep.


3. Commune with nature

Numerous studies have found that exposure to nature, such as taking a hike, can help restore our ability to pay attention.


4. Take a digital vacation

You may not be able to control the constant barrage of information at work, but you can do something about it in your personal life. Try taking a digital vacation where you turn off your phone, computer, and TV for a weekend. It may be hard at first to resist the digital cravings that are stirring up your appetite for useless information, but stick with it! You might just re-discover the simple joys of personal conversation, reading a book, or playing a board game.


5. Take a real vacation

Pack your bags and get out of town or take a “stay-cation” and explore your home town. Whatever you do, give your brain a break from the rat race.

Want more ideas for detoxing your brain? Check out Fast Company’s digital detox list or follow the #unplug hashtag on Twitter.

Avoid multitasking

Did you know that multitasking hurts customer service?

That's because humans can only process one conscious thought at a time. We work slower and make more errors when we try to do more than one thing at a time that requires our attention.  

Here are some common examples of multitasking that can lead to service failures: 

  • Trying to type an email while speaking to another customer
  • Talking to a co-worker while serving a customer
  • Responding to a text while having a conversation

A great way to experience how multitasking can hurt performance is to try a Stroop Test. Give it a try and see how you do.

You lost me at "Hello"

There’s something magical about a warm, friendly, and authentic greeting in customer service. As a customer, you feel immediately at ease and gain confidence in the other person’s ability to serve you well.

So why doesn’t it happen more often?

Here’s an example that can help us better understand some of the reasons why so many greetings fail.

Rep: “Thank you for calling The Bayside Grill. This is Jane. How may I help you?”

Me: “Hi Jane. My name is Jeff. I’m calling to make a reservation please.”

Rep: “It will be my pleasure to assist you. What's your name?”

Here are just a few misses in this very typical exchange:

  • I gave my name, but Jane missed it.
  • Jane sound rushed when she answered the phone.
  • Jane sounded robotic when she said, “It will be my pleasure to assist you.

I know, the fix is easy, right? Jane should just answer the phone with a bit more enthusiasm, listen carefully, and then respond with sincerity.

Unfortunately, the problem is often created by management practices that influence Jane's performance.

Here are a few other factors that may contribute to poor customer service greetings.

Employees are distracted. In many customer service situations, the person greeting you is expected to simultaneously perform other tasks, depriving you of their full attention. For example, Jane may have be staring at a line of guests waiting to be seated when she took my call. (Check out my recent post on how multitasking hurts customer service.)

Scripts are for robots. Many customer service greetings are scripted, presumably because employees like Jane can’t be trusted to create an acceptable greeting on their own. The problem is that employees start focusing on nailing the script instead of nailing the greeting. (I wrote a post in 2009 on getting more consistency by ditching the script.)

Employees aren’t monitored for friendliness. When I worked in a large call center I remember having endless debates over what friendly sounds like. It’s easy to observe whether or not Jane used the correct, scripted greeting. Unfortunately, friendliness is inherently subjective. It might be very difficult for Jane and her supervisor to come up with a shared definition of what “friendly” looks or sounds like.

What’ the solution? Here are three simple things customer service leaders can do to improve their employees’ greetings:

  1. Eliminate distractions. Give employees the tools, training, and coaching to help them focus on one customer at a time.
  2. Ditch the script. Replace cumbersome scripts with more general guidelines. Employees like Jane can use their own personality to come up with something that works or them and still achieves the desired result.
  3. Hire naturally friendly people. Obvious, I know, but this practice isn't as common as you would think.

What else can we do to make greetings more friendly, warm, and authentic?