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People Development

The end of the year is approaching, and what a rollercoaster it’s been. For customer service leaders and teams, it’s probably been as tough a year as any – and that’s coming on the back of 2020 when the pandemic struck and sent us all into lockdowns for the first time.

In such an extended period of high workloads and uncertainty, life can take its toll. Staff have had to work in new ways, balance the demands of work and life in unfamiliar circumstances and deal with customers who are also going through the same stresses themselves.

That’s why it’s essential that organisations stand back as 2021 draws to a close and think about whether they’re doing enough to invest in, support and develop their customer service (and all) staff – and what they need to do next year to ensure that the optimum level of support is there.

The time is right to do this because it’s fair to say that we’ve generally come out of crisis mode now and are well into the recovery phase. So there’s more opportunity to step back and reflect. But it’s also the right time because while we may not be in the grip of a crisis anymore, we are still very much in a time of uncertainty and ambiguity. This can be dangerous for businesses because without a real sense of clarity, staff can easily become distracted and look elsewhere.

Retention of staff is certainly a prominent issue. We’ve all heard of the ‘Great Resignation’ phenomenon in the wake of the pandemic as people have reassessed their lives and what’s important to them.

What’s more, with almost constant headlines about skills shortages, record vacancies and salary inflation, there’s a risk to any business that key individuals may decide to look around in the market and see what opportunities are out there.

All of these factors point in one direction. Businesses need to redouble their commitment to investing in their staff. This is partly about reward – ensuring salaries, bonuses and other perks reflect what individuals are truly worth.

But it’s about much more than that. Flexibility has become key as the hybrid working era has kicked in. So, are organisations rising to this and finding solutions that work on both sides? It’s important to set fair expectations, but show the right degree of employer flexibility too.

Then there is training and development. It was Lifelong Learning Week recently, and for me this just served as a reminder of how important it is that we are all continually developing and building our skills. Training may have taken something of a backseat over the last eighteen months. So, employers should be revisiting this and asking themselves whether their L&D offer is meeting needs. Every member of staff, for example, should have a personal development plan that they draw up with their line manager and review regularly with them. Is that the case in your organisation?

Another area that’s got to be addressed is wellbeing. Mental health has risen dramatically up the agenda in recent times and good employers need to recognise their duty of care. For customer service leaders, this is about ensuring that there’s a culture of openness so that if someone is struggling they feel able to talk about it to their manager or colleagues without any stigma attached. There should be clear communication about where staff can go for advice, guidance or support.

It’s an issue that’s especially relevant for customer service because sadly, as The Institute has been campaigning around, there are still far too many unacceptable instances of customer abuse. We’re delighted that our Service with Respect campaign has had so much traction – but it hasn’t made the problem go away. Indeed, our most recent research finds that 60% of customer service staff say they have been subject to aggressive or abusive customer behaviour.

I fear this problem won’t easily resolve itself. Part of the reason for these levels of disrespect is that many customers have been facing significant pressures in their own lives and let their frustrations boil over when dealing with customer service teams. But the signs are that 2022 will continue to be challenging. Product shortages and delays are likely to continue in many categories; the cost of living is likely to continue to increase; we could see interest rate rises that affect people’s mortgages and other financial commitments; and Covid won’t be completely ‘over’ either.

In other words, customer service teams around the country are going to need to be as hard-working, tolerant and committed as ever. That’s why organisations need to show how much they value them – and this means investing in them as the highly skilled professionals they are.

Jo Causon

Jo joined The Institute as its CEO in 2009. She has driven membership growth by 150 percent and established the UK Customer Satisfaction Index as the country’s premier indicator of consumer satisfaction, providing organisations with an indicator of the return on their service strategy investment.

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