Managing Mental Health in a Customer-Facing Role

Oji Editorial Staff | May 4, 2023
Male patient being reassured by nurse in hospital setting
Male patient being reassured by nurse in hospital setting

Customer experience can make or break a business. Execs know it. In McKinsey’s 2022 State of Customer Care survey, improving customer experience was the fastest-growing priority area. It puts those in customer-facing roles in high-pressure positions and their mental health can suffer.

Seven out of 10 jobs require customer service skills, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Account and product managers, tech support engineers, cashiers, servers, and receptionists all directly interact with customers. Sales reps, and business development managers are also on the frontlines.

These roles are challenged by higher rates of attrition and staffing shortages. The individuals may lack the tools needed to provide answers or meet customer expectations. Supply chain issues also contribute to problems, even post-pandemic. Meanwhile, “customer rage is mutating like a virus" with customers more likely to be rude or yell than ever before.

Yet those in customer-facing roles are expected to maintain a positive attitude, navigate stressful situations, demonstrate empathy, and work productively.

While everyone has stress in their job, the National Institute of Health notes “when stress is part of the job description, as it often is when you deal directly with customers, it’s not quite as easy to handle.”

Customer-Facing Professionals Feel the Strain

Increased customer contacts can be a good sign for business. Yet the volume puts greater pressure on already strained CX employees. In 2022, 61 percent of McKinsey’s surveyed care leaders reported a growth in total calls. If all those calls were to say, “Thank you” or “You’re doing such a great job,” it could help the customer care worker’s state of mind. Gratitude goes a long way, after all.

Instead, across every industry problems or complaints are the usual. The pandemic played a role, but the American customer has grown more dissatisfied since 2010. By mid-2022, the American Customer Satisfaction Index, “had plummeted to levels not seen in 17 years.”

In this era of dissatisfaction, a positive customer experience can help a business stand out. Customer satisfaction leads to more sales, greater loyalty, and improved word of mouth. But to get there, you first need to support customer-facing personnel.

Many customer care leaders focus on retaining and developing top customer care talent. But that’s only part of the solution. Prioritizing mental health and promoting emotional intelligence can also support a positive employee experience that can translate to great customer experiences.

Research clearly links emotional intelligence and mental health. Uncontrolled emotions can have a negative impact on mental health. “When we can’t recognize, understand or put into words what we’re feeling, it’s impossible for us to do anything to address it,” says Marc Brackett, founding director for the Yale Insitute of Emotional Intelligence.

Emotional regulation and co-regulation can be valuable skills for customer-facing professionals to manage stress and maintain positive mental health. It involves recognizing and managing one’s own emotions, while co-regulation involves recognizing and responding to the emotions of others.

In a customer service setting, being able to regulate emotions and respond appropriately to the emotions of customers can help professionals avoid burnout, reduce stress and improve job satisfaction. By practicing emotional regulation and co-regulation techniques, you can develop greater self-awareness, empathy, and resilience which can help professionals handle difficult interactions with ease and grace.

Managing Mental Health for Employees in a Customer-Facing Role

People on both sides of the customer care experience can suffer from a toxic interaction. Employees can better manage their emotions and mental health and well-being with the following strategies:

Listen to music

Listening to music can be a powerful tool for improving mental health. Research suggests that music can have a profound effect on mood, reducing feelings of stress, anxiety, and depression, while promoting relaxation and calmness. It can also provide an outlet for emotions, helping professionals to process and cope with difficult experiences or feelings.

Take a deep breath

Deep breathing is a simple yet powerful technique that can help improve mental health. By slowing down and deepening the breath, we activate the body’s natural relaxation response, reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Deep breathing can also help regulate the autonomic nervous system, promoting feelings of calm and well-being. Additionally, this technique can improve cognitive function, enhance focus and improve the clarity of thought.

Get up, get moving

You don’t have to go run a marathon (though you may feel like you have the adrenaline to do so after a particularly unpleasant exchange). Still, getting up and moving your body is another way to interrupt your fight-flight reaction. Pretty much any form of physical activity can help distract you from irritations and enhance the production of endorphins while helping to protect your body from the long-term harmful effects of stress.

Practice gratitude

You can also get powerful positive vibes by being grateful. Maybe you say “thank you” to the manager who took over that combative customer. Or you bring back coffee to that colleague who covered your break. Even just making a mental note of things that made you happy throughout the day, that you can feel grateful for, can help alleviate your stress.

Managing Mental Health for Managers Supporting Customer-Facing Roles

The words “mental health” can be stigmatized, but this is a key aspect of well-being. Happy, healthy employees perform their jobs better. These strategies can help leaders and managers support their people in customer-facing roles.

Check-in with team members

Monitoring employee mental health is easiest if you ask people how they’re doing. You’ll want to respect people’s boundaries, but normalizing conversations about well-being can help people feel more comfortable talking to you if an issue does arise.

Checking in on a regular basis, and actively listening to what the employee says, and help you ensure you provide support when it’s needed. Avoid making the welfare check feel like a mental box you’re ticking off. This could leave people questioning whether you actually do care.

Solicit anonymous feedback

Providing several channels to provide feedback can also help you gauge how employees are faring. You’ll likely get better responses if you make surveys or pulse checks anonymous as people will more likely share honest perspectives.

Another important aspect of asking for feedback? Act on the results. If your team brings up concerns and nothing changes, you’ll further demotivate them.

Communicate frequently and consistently

Lack of transparency can cause people anxiety, especially in times of uncertainty or crisis. You can help alleviate stress with frequent and consistent internal upward, downward, and lateral communication.

Demonstrate empathy

Some see this as a “soft skill” and focus their leadership development in other areas, but being able to empathize with your people can offer many benefits.

A Catalyst survey of nearly 900 US employees concluded, “Empathy is an important driver of employee outcomes such as innovation, engagement, and inclusion…In short, empathy is a must-have in today’s workplace.”

Empower employees

Emotionally intelligent managers look for opportunities to help staff gain relevant new skills and make their current jobs more fulfilling. This can help employers feel respected and cared for, which helps to lessen their work anxiety.

Empowering customer-facing staff to fulfill reasonable requests can also make a better experience for everyone, Amas Tenumah, author of Waiting for Service, told NPR. It is uplifting for the employee to feel, “They can be the hero.”

Start with Employees to Improve CX

Ongoing research is helping us to see the link between employees, customers, and revenue. When customer experience matters to your business, customer-facing employees matter immensely too.

The climate for customer care is challenging, but prioritizing the mental health and well-being of your people can lead to improved customer experiences and drive business success. Emotional intelligence is fundamental to these efforts.

In the current customer care context, emotional intelligence training can have tremendous practical implications for your organization. Take charge of your team’s mental health with emotional intelligence training. Sign up for the Oji Emotions Pilot Program.

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