Customer service burnout

Customer Service Burnout: How Leaders Can Spot and Prevent It

Customer service burnout is endemic. And it’s costing your company money. The good news is, if you spot it early, there are easy and actionable steps you can take to mitigate its effects and improve employee retention.

Why you should care about customer service burnout

“It’s a very emotionally demanding job,” says Ty Schalamon, who spent years as a customer service manager at SketchUp before transitioning into sales.

Jeff Toister of Toister Performance Solutions and author of The Service Culture Handbook released a 2023 survey of customer service agents that reveals that 59% of customer service reps are at risk of burnout, including 28% who are at risk of severe burnout.

That level of emotional demand and customer service burnout means high turnover rates in customer service.

“Most people can’t do it for very long. Two years is about the max,” Schalamon adds.

And that turnover is expensive.

Gallup estimates that replacing a single employee costs one-half to two times the employee’s annual salary, and that’s a conservative estimate. Gallup offers an example of a 100-person company with an average salary of $50,000 per year and estimates that this hypothetical company would burn between $660,000 and $2.6 million per year on turnover. That’s based on a 26.3% annual turnover rate.

There’s not only a direct financial cost. There are lost opportunity costs as well.

“If you have an opening and have not been actively recruiting, then generally, it takes a couple of weeks or more just to fill the opening. So let’s generously call it four weeks between the opening and having a person who’s walking in the door on day one. That’s a month of misery,” Toister says.

And Toister says that’s an optimistic estimate. In reality, it’s more like 3-4 months of longer support queues and unhappy customers—one month to hire the right candidate and up to 3 months to train them.

“That’s a lot of pain. It’s the cost not only of having to hire and train that person, but it’s the cost of less productivity, of missed sales, of poor customer service, and having other people that are having to cover all those shifts and paying overtime. So it can be exceptionally costly,” Toister adds.

Preventing customer service burnout should be a top priority for your company.

We’ve already discussed challenges contributing to burnout and degrading good customer service. Now let’s talk about how you can spot burnout in your team and how to fix it.

How to spot customer service burnout

“Burnout is a physical or mental exhaustion, and there are three specific characteristics,” Toister says.

Those three changes to look for are:

  • Demotivation
  • Reduction in performance
  • A bad attitude

Other changes to look for include increased absenteeism, increased sensitivity to feedback, and even physical symptoms like headaches and nausea.

It’s your and your organization’s responsibility to identify the causes and how to treat and/or prevent them because it’s affecting their health and your bottom line.

Let’s explore some ways you can avoid burnout in your organization.

How to avoid and treat customer burnout in your team

Now that we’ve established how to spot burnout and why it’s your responsibility to prevent it, how can you do that? There are many ways—some easier than others—but all are important to keep in your turnover-reduction toolbox.

Start at the top

“One of the items identified in the report that was correlated to burnout or burnout resilience was a feeling that your company generally has good products and services,” Toister says.

It’s pretty simple: if your company sells high-quality products, you’re going to have fewer disgruntled customers, which in turn reduces stress on your customer service team.

“They’re not calling angry, they’re calling with maybe a question or [because] they’re delighted,” Toister says.

As Amazon leadership principles have proven: the best customer service is no service. If your company sells good products and is proactive with customer communication, that means lighter loads and less stress for customer service.

Make your company customer-oriented

Companies should focus on the entire customer experience, starting at the very top.

“Most organizations have not clearly defined what a great customer experience looks like. Ask your employees: ‘What does a great customer experience look like,’ and you’ll get a lot of great answers. They’ll just all be different,” Toister says.

“I think this is where a lot of people end up smacking their forehead when they realize this,” Toiser adds.

Toister instructs companies to develop one simple statement to drive the customer experience, whether they call it a vision statement, mission statement, or a brand promise. Whatever you call it, it has to be simple and offer clarity.

Next, companies need to share it with their employees and ensure they understand what it means and how to implement it.

How can you test that? Again, ask your employees what a great customer experience looks like. “If you don’t get a consistent answer, you haven’t done your job as a leader because we need everybody on the same page,” Toister says.

Finally, you must ensure that your decisions align with the customer experience statement.

“If I’m making decisions that are aligned with our definition of a great customer experience, it’s really easy for employees to do great work. But if I’m making decisions that are not aligned, or as a leader, I’m not modeling what a great experience should look like, then I create conflicts for employees,” Toister says.

Toister illustrates this principle by comparing a misaligned company to a car with misaligned wheels. When there’s no clear alignment, your organization swerves all over the road, struggling to stay in its lane.

A classic example of this misalignment is survey begging, which you’ve probably experienced. It seems like we’re presented with a survey at the end of every customer service interaction, with the agent often requesting a high score.

“Once I give them an employee a goal to achieve a certain score on a survey, then they don’t care about doing better. They just want a good score on the survey,” Toiser says.

Offer more feedback and support

A simple, low-cost way customer service managers can reduce burnout is to be more involved with their team members. The vast majority of agents who are at low risk of burnout report that they receive regular feedback from their bosses.

Customer service burnout feedback
Copyright Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. Used with permission.

Likewise, there is a strong correlation between burnout risk and having a supportive boss. “94% of low-risk agents have a supportive boss, compared to just 77% of high-risk agents,” the report says.

Customer service burnout supportive
Copyright Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. Used with permission.

“On one end, you have agents who don’t feel that they get regular feedback. They don’t get a lot of support from their boss. There was even an article in the Wall Street Journal just last week about how companies are increasingly using AI to supervise contact center agents, which is horribly dehumanizing,” Toister says. 

“On the other hand, many agents say my boss is really supportive, and that tied directly to burnout resilience. If I feel like my boss has got my back, I’m much more likely to be resilient to burnout,” Toister continues.

One way to support your team is to ensure they have ample breaks and self-care opportunities. Do they have time to go for walks, practice mindfulness, or exercise?

Empower your agents

Maybe your company sells great products and is zeroed in on a great customer experience, but do you give your customer service reps the tools and authority to please customers?

Toister found a high correlation between disempowered agents and burnout. “In many cases, contact center agents are not fully empowered to do what’s right for the customer. And that can be extremely frustrating,” he says.

How do you empower your customer service team?

“It starts by defining empowerment. When I’ve looked at customer-focused organizations, they define empowerment as enabling employees to do good work,” Toister says.

He outlines three ways companies can empower customer service:

  • Give them enough resources: Ensure your teams have the software and other tools needed to do the job. For instance, can an agent quickly approve a return, offer a refund, or ship out a replacement?
  • Implement best practices for resolving issues: Have well-ordered policies and procedures in place to handle most customer complaints.
  • Hand over authority: Give agents the authority to bend the rules or quickly resolve a problem if no procedure is in place.

“We think of empowerment as letting agents do whatever they want, but that’s not really it. It’s best-practice procedures so that I can consistently serve my customers at a high level,” Toister says.

He offers the example of a situation where one agent may take five minutes to resolve an issue while another might take 30 minutes. “No one wants to be that 30-minute customer or that 30-minute agent, so we need best practices,” Toister says.

“I imagine a tool like TextExpander makes it easier to access templates really quickly. Those things make the agent’s job much easier,” Toister says.

Spend more

Many articles say that high pay isn’t tied to happier employees, but Toister hasn’t found that to be true. In his survey, 41% of customer service agents said they don’t feel they are paid fairly. “Agents who feel they are paid fairly are more resilient to burnout,” the report says.

Are you paid fairly for the work you do?
Copyright Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. Used with permission.

“The research is pretty clear that pay is fundamentally important. You have to pay employees well enough that they’re not thinking about pay, and for most customer-focused organizations, that is paying above the midpoint, but it also allows them to access better talent. It allows them to expect more from their employees, and of course, it helps them keep their employees longer,” Toister explains.

What compounds the problem is when leaders offer financial incentives to offset low pay.

“If we look at all the research on motivation, we find that providing incentives as an extrinsic motivator—an external motivator—generally hurts performance more than it helps performance. And so, based on this very clear research, I don’t advocate for incentives,” Toister says.

To illustrate the point, Toister gave an example of a company offering $100 bonuses for high customer service survey scores. The result was that Tier 1 support regularly received bonuses, and Tier 2 never did. The reason was that as soon as the customer expressed frustration, the Tier 1 agents escalated them to Tier 2, so Tier 2 agents ended up with all the dissatisfied customers, who in turn gave low scores.

“That’s all an example of using surveys as a cudgel instead of helping us do better. We’ve created these horrible incentives,” Toister says.

“I draw a clear line between incentive pay—which does not work in customer service—and just paying employees really well, which is highly effective and is ultimately more efficient because you’re not dealing with lower productivity, lower turnover, chronic absenteeism, etc.,” Toister explains.

Likewise, customer service agents are at much less risk of burnout if the contact center is adequately staffed. Having enough employees and paying them well may cost more up front, but your organization may save money in the long run thanks to reduced turnover.

Customer service burnout staffing
Copyright Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. Used with permission.

Foster a positive work environment

Employees are at far less burnout risk if their boss sets a positive example. Fostering positivity in your organization is of key importance.

Does your boss set a positive example?
Copyright Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. Used with permission.

Customer service reps are also far less likely to burn out if they have one good friend at work. Interestingly, while Toister didn’t find a correlation between working from home and burnout risk, he did find that remote employees tended to get more feedback from their boss and develop more friendships at work. “That blew my mind because I did not expect that,” Toister says.

Do you have a good friend at work?
Copyright Toister Performance Solutions, Inc. Used with permission.

A major impediment to a positive work environment is a toxic employee. It may be cliche, but it’s true: one bad apple spoils the bunch.

“In a separate study that I did, 83% of customer service employees have at least one toxic co-worker, and this is defined as somebody who basically makes the workplace worse. They’re dishonest, they intentionally provide poor customer service, they harass other people, and they just make the environment a bad environment,” Toister says.

Toxic employees spread negativity, which increases the burnout risk for others and drives away talented people who don’t want to work in a toxic environment.

“Another factor that I found in the study is that resilient employees are more likely to trust that their co-workers are doing a great job. And as the burnout risk increases, they’re less likely to feel they can trust their co-workers to provide great customer service,” Toister explains.

Unfortunately, the best solution is to prune the toxic employee.

“There are employment laws that you have to follow, but the short end of it is if you have a toxic employee who’s chronically abusing your culture, abusing policies being dishonest, bullying people, harassing people, the fastest way to handle the issue, the best way to handle issues to fire them because they undermine the rest of your culture,” Toister says.

“What managers tell me is when they finally fire that toxic employee, it’s like a breath of fresh air. Everybody else is like, oh, I can go back to doing a good job again. Because this person is now gone,” Toister continues.

Of course, no manager wants to fire people, so it’s important to focus on creating a positive work environment. Any good gardener knows that many plants must be pruned to grow to their full potential. But pruning doesn’t replace the need to water and nourish the plant—it’s merely one item in the toolbox.

In summary:

  • Look for the signs of burnout in your team: Demotivation, a reduction in performance, and a bad attitude.
  • Start at the top, making your company customer-centric.
  • Empower your customer service agents by giving them enough resources and authority to thrill customers.
  • Pay your agents well.
  • Foster a positive work environment, pruning toxic employees if necessary.

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