Customer Support Attrition Rates

The Social Science That Explains Customer Service Attrition Rates

Daniel WeissLast updated on September 28, 2023
5 min

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High customer service attrition rates can sink an otherwise promising business, but this stubborn problem is solvable. Even if repetitive tasks, infrequent breaks, and irrational customers are unavoidable job hazards, understanding why this line of work often leads to burnout is the first step toward creating a sustainable team environment.

Fighting Back Boredom

Contrary to popular belief, boredom is not caused by a lack of things to do. This all-too-prevalent mental state occurs when none of the things a person can realistically do appeal to them.

Outside of work, we might feel bored while sitting through a children’s piano recital — when listening to disjointed chords or discreetly checking your email no longer stimulates the brain.

Customer support can, unfortunately, feel limiting in this way. The repetitive nature of answering phone calls paired with mandatory scripts can lead to mental burnout.

Even if the work requires an attention to consistency, boredom can be equalized by incentivizing high performance. The promise of rewards and upward mobility within the organization will instill personal meaning into support agents’ work.

But boredom isn’t just a symptom, it’s also a mental reflex to tasks we find difficult. If a support representative doesn’t have the requisite knowledge or experience to answer customers’ inquiries, it leads to mental fatigue and self-doubt. Boredom, in this context, can be described as a “shield against self-confrontation.”

(There’s a reason why most high school students consider modeling advanced statistics “boring.”)

When a lack of knowledge creates an impasse, it means helping customers is no longer an option. Boredom (not to mention frustration) will kick in. The solution, however, is simple.

New agents may feel this way until they’re fully acquainted with company policies and operations, but it should be noted that training does not end when onboarding schedules are complete. More experienced and trusted agents can be given administrative “rights” to solve more complex issues without additional transfers or escalations. This way, “roadblocks” can be avoided and agents’ frustrations eliminated.

After all, customer support — for all its stresses — is fulfilling in terms of person-to-person interaction and problem-solving. When support representatives are able to efficiently delight customers and resolve issues, boredom will cease to be an issue. Helping people will bring a more complete and genuine sense of satisfaction.

Addressing Social Exhaustion

Customer support is, at its very core, about human interaction. Support representatives are contacted because self-help resources, website content, or message boards have all come up short. Each inquiry represents a conversation that requires social tact, empathy, and critical thinking.

From a social and emotional perspective, these conversations can quickly add up, and it’s usually the hardest working employees who feel this burden the most. In fact, the highest performing agents are usually the most negatively affected.

A 2004 study found a correlation between employee conscientiousness (i.e. how committed an employee is to their position) and the effect to which emotional stress impacted work. Essentially, agents who value their positions and take pride in their jobs work slower and make fewer calls when emotional stress builds-up.

Ironically, the main culprit behind emotional burnout amongst support agents might be a lack of genuine emotion. False displays of amicability and empathy have been shown to encourage mental fatigue and employee burnout. Support agents who were instructed to follow strict rules when interacting with customers (e.g. an overtly friendly tone of voice) reported greater overall emotional stress than those who were allowed “display autonomy.”

Relieving the social stresses of the support industry can take many forms, but there are a few steps that will help your agents better manage the human-aspects their work.

For one, scripts are a great tool for training, but they won’t always be appropriate given a caller’s individual case or emotional state. By giving agents autonomy to veer from the script, you can promote genuine empathy — eliminating the canned-emotion that leads to stress in the long-term.

Also, if emotional stress negatively impacts your best employees’ call volume, consider giving equal importance to NPS/CSAT scores when conducting performance reviews. Top performers should be able to relate to customers on a personal level, in addition to fielding an adequate number of inquiries.

Defending Against Angry Customers

Emotional fatigue is a large-scale problem for support personnel, but everyone who has worked a service job knows disgruntled customers are part of the terrain. Your representatives are often the first available target for upset customers, eager to vent their frustrations to an actual person. Rightly or wrongly (usually wrongly), support ops absorb the blame for seemingly all client-facing issues.

When heated situations arise, have an action plan to cools things down.

Broadly speaking, research supports a three-step system to defuse hostile situations. Agents should:

  1. Listen empathetically to the customer

  2. Practice “blame displacement”

  3. Offer an apology on behalf of the company

Step one should be straightforward. People want to be listened to, especially if they feel they’ve been wronged in some way. However, when contacting support, customers only want to be listened to once. Representatives should take thorough notes so any transfers or follow-up conversations can avoid repetition.

Blame displacement involves shifting a customer’s anger from the individual representative to the problem at hand. If possible, this should be an explanation of exactly when the issue happened and what went wrong. Providing insider-details lets the customer know you respect them as a customer and their anger isn’t baseless.

Finally, if appropriate, consider offering an apology on behalf of the company. A solution (or a timeline for a solution) can be offered as a service-gesture in order to maintain the brand’s image. Repeat customers and retention are keys to success for any business. A negative experience can have far-reaching effects, especially in the age of message boards and review sites.

But beware — anger is contagious. For support representatives to avoid burnout and stay stress-free, it’s vital to deflect hostility and decompress in the right way.

Contrary to popular belief, venting anger only tends to make it worse. In one study, participants were asked to hit a punching bag while thinking about someone who has made them angry. Another group (who were also angry at a specific individual) was instructed to hit a punching bag in a way geared toward exercise. The exercise group showed lower levels of anger post-experiment, while the “venting” group ended up even angrier.

Superior customer support is the hallmark of brands consumers trust, but managers need to recognize the strain it puts on individuals. If these obstacles are lessened by stress-reducing measures, customer support becomes a personally and professionally rewarding field, incorporating critical thinking, problem-solving, and person-to-person interaction. Burnout and attrition become a thing of the past.

Published on February 21, 2018.

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