“Help me understand why you wouldn’t want the number one service?” repeated the Comcast representative, who also couldn’t understand the pain and viral infamy he was about to unleash on his company’s brand. By now we’ve all heard the recorded Comcast customer service call, and you may have read the theories of explanation, the perverse incentives in place that meant the agent might have stood to benefit from his badgering. To him, the commendably patient customer on the other end of the line was just a stranger’s voice, and he was simply a worker paid on commission, compartmentalizing his humanity to do the unempathetic work of retaining a service on the brink of being canceled.
But what if the rep had needed to peer into the eyes of the man he tormented, or even seen his own face in a window on his screen? How would face-to-face communication in the form of visual chat software have altered that strange and desperate 18-minute call? Would the rep have been able to see himself and stop what he was doing?
Researchers have studied the issue of rudeness to understand why it seems that people can be so much ruder on a call or online than in person. Think back to your last conversation with a telemarketer, or take a glance through typical comments on YouTube for anecdotal evidence that this is true.
Shockingly, Professors at Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh found that browsing Facebook lowers our self-control and inflates our sense of self to a degree on par with a person impaired by alcohol. That is to say, talking to a stranger on the phone or online can be the same as talking to that individual in person when they are drunk. Didn’t a large number of comments on the Comcast call joke that the agent seemed like an inebriated boyfriend unable to process a bad breakup? Those comments may not have been so far off.
Certainly anonymity catches a lot of the blame: the idea that callers or commenters feel untouchable and as though their identity is not attached to their actions, so they can’t be held responsible when they get nasty with their Twitter replies or tell a telemarketer where they can put their timeshare. But other research has found that unkind behavior is actually not linked to anonymity, but to a lack of eye contact, and that eye contact quells online hostility.
Researchers at the University of Haifa in Israel carried out experiments where pairs of strangers were asked to debate issues over Instant Messenger and come to some agreement. In different cases, the pairs were totally invisible and anonymous, shared personal details, could see each other from the side, or could only see each other’s eyes but were otherwise anonymous. In the results, pairs with their eyes hidden were twice as likely to become hostile. Seeing each other’s eyes was the biggest factor in how well the individuals treated each other. It seems that audio and text-only communications miss out on the key to creating empathy – our all-important facial expressions.
Research like this is crucially informative to innovating best practices in the customer service industry. Today, the technology is available to equip contact centers with visual chat software. The Kindle’s Mayday button is an example of this, connecting users with live video of a customer representative ready to help while leaving the user off-camera as a measure of privacy.
This issue of exposure is addressed by a number of call center services in different ways. Virtual avatars are one available solution, allowing the agent – and in some cases the user – to be represented by an on-screen character, with appearances ranging from cartoony to life-like. This can improve both customer and agent satisfaction, allowing both parties to be represented visually in chat without needing to display their actual faces, reducing personal appearance and privacy concerns.
Call center software systems utilizing virtual avatars or video chat with agents can use analytics to reinforce the advantages of visual communication technology in a data-driven way. Currently, many live chat software choices include performance monitoring, where managers can study the effectiveness of their agents through measures such as customer-provided quality ratings, length of call, number of calls performed in a timeframe, conversions or call outcomes and more.
The new visual chat software will add another dimension to analytics-powered improvements to service, by measuring the effectiveness of various visual approaches. For example, different virtual avatars may foster different customer reactions in different scenarios, and companies using the software can iterate for the most trustworthy, empathetic and effective choices depending on that data-derived wisdom.
In the same way, data gained from software analysis of video chat customer service may actually quantify the value of an agent’s smile, eye contact or looks of concern, and managers may be able to impress new best practices based on these learnings in employee training and coaching.
A customer service agent is in a sense a kind of performer as well as a helper, just as a doctor must have a good bedside manner in addition to medical knowledge. The visual aspects of genuine concern and efficient, effective assistance that result in customer satisfaction will be better understood, and knowing and practicing them will become integral to a call center agent’s job. Certainly such knowledge and training could have helped to prevent the actions of the agent in the Comcast fiasco.
More than simply making calls kinder, the visual touchpoint of a friendly smile and the communication inherent in facial expressions have been found to significantly reduce confusion, negative responses, misheard words and customer frustration. Further experiments should be done to discover how best to balance the issue of exposure with making eye contact and empathy a central part of call center communications, and companies may be wise to collect their own data for their particular use cases. For any agent who could be the next Comcast rep gone viral, they just might find it useful to glance at a virtual image to see reality, and save themselves and their company a world of embarrassment.
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