Call-Center Workers Far More Patient Than Callers: Study

Call-Center Workers Take Heaps Of Abuse, Show Great Restraint: Study

The next time you find calling technical support to be a brutally frustrating experience, just be glad you're not on the other end of the line.

A new study conducted by University of Maryland researchers and published in The Academy of Management Journal found that call-center workers are routinely harangued and insulted by those of us experiencing technical difficulties, yet they retaliate against us far less frequently than one might imagine.

Mo Wang, an organizational psychologist and one of the study's authors, says the popular notion of call-center workers being unhelpful and even rude turns out to be largely mistaken. Instead, nearly a quarter of the callers looking for assistance end up mistreating their tech-support assistant in some fashion. For their part, tech-support workers deploy the sabotage tactics at their disposal -- dropping the call, putting the caller on an interminable hold or sending the caller down a rabbit hole of endless call transfers -- in fewer than one percent of cases.

The workers may not be "candidates for sainthood," Wang says, but they "deserve a lot of credit" for their patience.

Wang and his colleagues collected data from 131 China-based call-center workers handling customers who had problems with their cell phones. Each day for ten days they filled out anonymous questionnaires asking them to detail their experiences. Because so many of the calls dealt with network and service problems, a lot of the callers were already miffed before they even dialed.

Although they fielded about 75 calls a day, the workers retaliated against callers on average only about four times each over the course of 10 days. Wang notes that because the presence of supervisors prevents workers from swearing or yelling at callers, the forms of sabotage were usually subtle and passive-aggressive. (One option on the questionnaire was "told a customer you fixed something but didn’t fix it.") In most cases, the primary aim was not to ruin the caller's day but to simply be rid of the complaint.

The lesson for callers, Wang says, is "just be nice. Treat the call-center employees right." And if you do suspect you've been hung up on or otherwise messed with, it's not necessarily because you were out of line. The study found many acts of call-worker retaliation came in response to cumulative insults over the course of a bad day. "When it reaches a certain level, they just snap," says Wang.

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