Category Archives: Call Centers

Protecting Call Center Reps from Caller Abuse

call centerTo preserve morale in their call centers, bankers need to train their reps to handle caller abuse.



It has been called one of the greatest intercultural exchanges in history – offshore call centers handling millions of customer calls for banks and other companies. But there is a grim underside to the business: caller abuse of call center reps that goes unchecked because it is deemed inevitable and innocuous.

Our experience with offshore providers proves that it is neither inevitable nor innocuous. Caller abuse is costly in terms of excessively high churn, as much as 60% to 70%. And offshore reps can be taught how to handle it and in doing so improve their customer service.

Tough Business

If your bank uses offshore call centers, you don’t want your customers served by demoralized reps in the name of cost savings. Nor, as a responsible employer, do you want to countenance an employment situation where people representing your bank are expected to tolerate what you would never countenance onshore.

Caller mistreatment of reps is endemic and by many accounts growing in prevalence and harshness. Everyone deplores it and most companies set rules that ostensibly protect their onshore reps from the worst of it. But offshore the attitude often is: It’s a tough business, that’s part of the job, don’t take it personally, and above all, keep taking those calls!

It was a recent experience working with call center reps in East Asia that galvanized us to address this issue. There, people covet call center jobs; though arduous, such work is viewed as a rare ticket to the middle class. Landing one takes diligence in getting an education, learning English, moving away from families, learning to be independent, embracing a new culture and following strict rules.

Having been in the call center business for decades, we thought we knew what abuse was until we sat and listened in on some calls offshore. Remarks like these, hostile and aggressively delivered, often with cursing, were common:

  • “I don’t want to talk to you. Switch me over to someone from my country.”
  • “I can’t understand a thing you’re saying.”
  • “It doesn’t sound like English is your first language.”
  • “You’re taking our jobs away!”
  • “Don’t make me repeat myself! Can’t you understand me?”
  • “Your company is a joke.”

Those are personal insults. But what were the reps told? “Don’t take it personally.” The reps themselves were embarrassed when we heard them abused. They shrugged it off with platitudes: It’s not personal, some people are just rude; they aren’t mad at me, they are mad at the company.”

We almost bought the stereotype: high-minded, stoic strivers, too polite to take offense. But as we continued to observe the interactions, we abandoned that nonsense. They were proud people being insulted. Of course it bothered them. Medical journals document the profound effects of verbal insults. Its victims come to feel unworthy, fearful, and shamed. They begin to believe the insults, lose self-confidence and are prone to depression and anxiety.

And the effects are cumulative. We noticed that if a rep had just one insulting caller, or fielded a stray insult or two, they shrugged it off. But if the insults accumulated, we could see the reps deflate and withdraw or toy with something to stave off the next call. Their voices would lose energy and cheerfulness. They skipped parts of the conversation. Eventually, many quit.

For the banks those reps represent, how could such a situation not diminish the company’s brand? How could a demoralized work force deliver the service level the bank desires?

Caller abuse can’t be prevented, but banks that use offshore call centers can ensure that reps are taught how to handle it with dignity, restraint, and wisdom. Four basic skills, all of them eminently teachable and learnable, can make the difference:

Know how to defend yourself. When we promote this, offshore providers tend to protest, “Oh no, I can’t have reps getting into arguments with customers.” But defending isn’t arguing. It’s simply standing up for your company and for your own hard-earned professionalism. Who wants to deal with a company whose employees think so little of their stature that they absorb insults as though they deserve them?

When reps can assert their professionalism by using the right words in the right ways, they pave the way for customer respect to follow. They can learn and practice appropriate responses for common insults. For example, a jibe about English being your second language can be met with, “Yes, I am multi-lingual, which means I am fully trained to help you….”

Stay focused on the customer issue. The point of handling the insults isn’t to retrain the populace in politeness but to promptly deliver whatever customer service the bank has hired the offshore company for. Reps can learn how to transform a successful defense seamlessly into a confident offer to take care of the customer’s problem. They don’t leave the caller to hang up in embarrassment or feel abashed. They can seize the advantage of a successful defense by immediately offering the caller a new opening to get the conversation back on track.

That’s a high-order skill but teachable with practice and coaching. It takes acute listening skills to quickly detect the caller’s changed demeanor, careful word selection to draw the customer back to the issue and skill to deliver the words with the right warmth and cheer. In this way, improving the rep experience also meets the center’s business goals.

Scripts they can internalize, not parrot. While these reps arrive on the job quite fluent in English as a second language, it’s still a second language. Typical training involves learning English slang and making small talk with customers. It is conducted entirely in English, sometimes with a penalty for using the mother tongue. But consider a simple word like “hello.” Imagine explaining, without resorting to the student’s vernacular, that usually it’s a cheerful greeting but sometimes it’s sarcasm for, “Wise up!”

As for teaching small talk, if the training is perfunctory and mainly about conveying broad-brush stereotypes, how could it possibly make for better conversations? What caller would be pacified by a rep that has learned enough about America to say to a caller from Detroit, “I, too, admire your tigers and lions.”

Convey sincere empathyIf reps are taught to use words that assert empathy, but not taught how to convey the appropriate feeling, they end up conveying insincerity, and we all know how well that sits with callers who were unhappy to start with. After they learn the right words, reps still need to work on rate of speech, intonation and inflection. Until they get style, feeling and words all wrapped together in a convincing conversation, reps will have a hard time communicating empathy.

This article first appeared in BAI Banking Strategies on November 13, 2013

Mr. Brown is president, co-chairman and co-founder of Los Angeles-based Cohen Brown Management Group Inc., where Ms. Lubahn is a managing director for call center services. They can be reached at and

Five Traits of Top-Performing Contact Centers

language, communication, skills, helloSuccessful contact centers speak the same language, according to our conversations with contact center directors around the globe.

I recently had the opportunity to visit 17 contact centers in 5 countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, South Africa, UAE – Dubai, and Australia. Over the course of multiple interviews with contact center directors and managers, a distinctive pattern emerged: no matter where they were located, successful, growing contact centers talked at length about five key issues that their less-successful counterparts did not. Does your contact center speak the language of success?

1. Top-performing contact centers are guided by a vision in everything they do.

Without exception, top performers from Dubai to Michigan have a guiding vision and talk about it with passion. Moreover, they dedicate sufficient resources to making sure that their people, processes, and technology are aligned with that vision. They know how their vision carries out the broader corporate strategy, and how it translates to serving clients.

For example, several contact centers talked about walking away from pursuits that were in conflict with their vision or business strategy. In this way, these successful centers protect themselves against potential failures by understanding who they are, what differentiates them, and where they add value.

2. Top performers stress employee satisfaction.

Successful contact centers take employee satisfaction seriously, because they understand its impact on clients. BNZ’s Susan Basile told us, “You must take your employees on every step of the journey with you. Dissatisfied employees will not have great conversations with customers.”

I also noticed that while most contact centers measure employee satisfaction, the more successful organizations I visited have dedicated internal resources, including management-level staff, assigned to resolving employee issues and reporting on their progress.

3. Top performers are committed to skill development from the top down.

Top performing contact centers don’t hold agents accountable for improving their

skills while giving their leaders a pass. Their commitment to training includes developing the skills of directors and senior management as well. In addition, they understand that training is not an event but a process; most had formal accreditation or certification plans in place to continually maintain and improve skills at every level. One center in Australia has skill development and skill mastery included in its annual performance review.

4. Top performers focus on customer satisfaction, retention and loyalty.

Client satisfaction, retention, and loyalty are not easy things to quantify, but the most successful contact centers we talked to had a process in place to measure these important performance indicators on a regular basis. Some even measured it daily. One center in the US subscribes to a third-party survey of customers as part of a bank-wide initiative. It regularly surveys customers on their willingness to become an advocate for the bank as a measure of loyalty which goes beyond satisfaction.

These contact centers tend to dig deeper, asking questions designed to reveal more qualitative information – for example, beyond “did you experience a wait to speak with a representative” to “would you refer us to a good friend?”. In addition, the growing organizations talk about client satisfaction in team meetings and ask themselves, “if we were customers, what would we want to change?”

5. Top performers value technology as a resource, not the answer.

Top performers make sure that their technology serves their vision and their clients. They regularly assess how their systems are working for them: Does the IVR have too many options? Are they logically sequenced? With a new campaign, could the customer get trapped in an IVR menu? They don’t let their agents struggle with technology issues alone, and when new systems are needed, they invest with caution. Finally, these organizations regularly observe agents using the technology and get regular feedback about it from customers and staff.

Hopefully you’ll see yourself having the same conversations!

Johanna Lubahn is Managing Director of Call Center Services for Cohen Brown Management Group, Inc.

Entering the Red Zone – Top Five Causes of Stress

We all have “red zones” when it comes to handling distress or negative stress in the workplace (not to mention in our personal lives). Well, in order to learn effectively, be productive, and have an enjoyable time at work, distress has to be managed. But how can it be managed when everything is so stressful these days? With all the emails, text messages, voicemail, meetings, goals, reports, administrative tasks (I’m getting stressed just making this list), how is it possible to get a handle on distress?

You don’t have to read numerous books or sit on your desk practicing Yoga. There are a few simple things you can do to move out of the “red zone.” If you’re thinking “I don’t have time,” relax. This won’t take a lot of time, or energy, or brainpower—just a few minutes to focus and make a plan.

  1. The first thing to recognize is that some stress, called “eu-stress,” is good. It’s a motivator, a means to get things done. Top athletes have eu-stress. Happy life events create eu-stress. So realize that some stress is actually good.
  2. To get out of your personal “red zone,” make a list of the things that cause you distress and then list the specific effects of the causes. For example, a cause of distress might be too many changes happening in the workplace at once. The effects of this could be: fear of the unknown, unproductive thinking, inability to complete all necessary tasks on time, etc.
  3. After you list the causes and effects of distress, group them into categories.
  4. Develop a plan to address the major causes and effects of your own personal distress using the 20/80 rule: address the 20% that cause you 80% of your personal distress.
  5. Revisit your list on a quarterly basis to maintain a healthy work attitude and productivity.

With so many things going on in every aspect of our lives today, take time for yourself so you can stay out of the “red zone.”

Your thoughts?

Johanna Lubahn is Managing Director of Call Center Services for Cohen Brown Management Group, Inc.

Make My Day! Understanding Anger Triggers


Well, we’re all on the edge sometimes and ready to lash out at the next person who cuts us off in traffic, jumps in front of us in the checkout lane, etc. Well I say, why so edgy? If you know your own anger triggers, you don’t have to join in the road rage or cart-smashing activities. What a relief!

During our research, we found that if people take the time to understand their OWN anger triggers, they have a chance to control them. Most of us do understand our anger triggers but we don’t sit down and formally list them, study them and develop a plan to control them. I’m not talking about anger management classes here; I’m talking about just understanding what sets you off so you can control it.

Here’s the best news. If you can control your own anger triggers, especially in the workplace, you will be happier, your colleagues will be happier and most importantly—your customers will be happier.

So here’s a list of things to consider the next time something makes you upset:

  1. Make a list of what angers you.
  2. Practice staying centered when something upsets you; take the high road.
  3. Stay detached from angry comments made to you.

Make YOUR Day by focusing on the positive and good things that are coming your way. Don’t let the little annoying things ruin it for you, your colleagues or your customers.

Your thoughts?

Johanna Lubahn is Managing Director of Call Center Services for Cohen Brown Management Group, Inc.

Are You Ignoring Your Biggest Sales Engine?

While everyone is running around in a panic about generating new sales, some organizations completely overlook the gold mine they already own, up and running but ignored, the call center. Now, this doesn’t apply to all organizations. Some new entrants to the financial sector have figured out that call centers are the ONLY way to go for sales and customer satisfaction.

With the explosion of cell phones around the world, why would some organizations limit the capabilities of their call centers by insisting that anything to do with sales has to be done face-to-face? This is 2012, and people are shopping, trading, doing almost everything over the phone, so why the restraint on internal call centers?

You can argue that it’s because of identity protection, but if that is the case, why are the new on-line banks and organizations making it big with sales and customer satisfaction? I think the reason is because it’s hard to disinvest in a physical network once you’ve established it. So, to justify the physical network, some organizations mandate that customers visit a branch/office to complete a transaction.

Do the math: a typical call center in an organization can generate up to 50% of the sales and, if staffed properly, can equal the efforts of physical branches/offices. They can also do this with a 10th of the staff and at a quarter of the cost. So, if your organization is focused on cost-cutting and efficiencies through the call center, think about how business is really conducted. It’s on the phone. Don’t ignore your biggest sales engine—the call center—because the opportunities are enormous!

Your thoughts?

Johanna Lubahn is Managing Director of Call Center Services for Cohen Brown Management Group, Inc.