Leadership, Culture and Coaching | What a call centre (re)taught me about Emotional Intelligence
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What a call centre (re)taught me about Emotional Intelligence

What a call centre (re)taught me about Emotional Intelligence

There are three certainties in life. Death and taxes, for sure.  But also the dreadful brutalization experienced by anyone who has to call a credit card 1-800 call centre.

This is a fact.

And although I’ve known this for as long as I can recall, I’m still equally as dismayed every time I get placed in a phone queue. Perhaps it is the eternal optimist in me, ever hoping that this time will be better?

Last week I found myself in a predicament I’ve been at least a dozen times before — an unknown charge appeared on my credit card statement. This could only mean one thing: I would soon be forced to face my most dreaded woe.  Ripping my toenails off with pliers? Putting out a lit cigarette on my arm? No, far worse.  Having to navigate the automated hell of  a credit card call bank.

Prepping myself for the worst, I placed the call and was immediately answered by an automated message, which informed me that their menu items had recently changed.  I’d been down this road before, and instead of waiting to hear all 9 options, I pressed 0.  Just get me to an operator already.

The automated message started over.

Good God!  How could I just get through to an operator?  I tried 0#, 0#, 0# in rapid succession, only to be met with the message that “this option does not exist.  Thank you for your call.”

The call centre hung up on me.

As my impatience grew, so did my righteousness.  “See, this is exactly why call centres are so terrible,” I told myself, begrudgingly calling back.

Like the time before, I was greeted with the same automated message.  I huffed and puffed until the lethargically slow automated voice finally got to option #6 (dispute a charge), which prompted me to enter my card number. As the instructions indicated I could, I dictated into the phone. 

At a glacial pace, the automated voice related back to me the 16 digits I had just said.  Digit 9 was heard incorrectly, however, at which point I began saying “no, no, incorrect, wrong number”.

In call centre computer coding language, I now know that “no, no, incorrect, wrong number” prompts the system to hemorrhage, booting the user back to the main menu.  ACHK! I had to start all over.

As my patience grew thin, I pressed option 6 immediately, which took me back to where I was a few moments ago. Again, it prompted me for my 16 digit card number.

This time, I would get it stick it to the system, I thought to myself.  I would manually type the card number in.  That would certainly work, I was convinced.

I was wrong.  Digit 7 was recorded incorrectly which forced me to do the only reasonable thing: repeat louder and louder “operator, operator, operator” until the computer was strong armed into connecting me with a live human being.

If you’ve ever tried to arm wrestle an automated system, I’ll save you some grief.  They win. No sooner than I started yelling “operator” was I answered with a limp apology.  “We’re sorry you’re having technical difficulties.  Please hang up and try your call again later.”

Only I wasn’t given the option of actually hanging up.  The call centre did that for me.  Again!

Above or Below the Line

Blood boiling, I glanced at my lap top and saw a slide of a video I often use in my Emotional Intelligence trainings.  Its called “Above or Below the Line” and is based off an insightful video produced by the Conscious Leadership Group.

The video’s message is simple: thoughtful leaders are constantly scanning ourselves to see if they are either above or below a simple black line.  When they are above, they are in a brain state of creativity, openness, and curiosity.  The need to be right is less important as the desire to learn.  When we are below the line, we are in a state of scarcity — not enough time, money, control, or resources.  Here, the world or our circumstances are perceived as  threats and our need to be right or in control increases.

Neither above or below the line are inherently bad nor good.  Indeed, we go in and out of them all day long.  However, our brains are chemically hardwired to go below the line to protect us from physical threat.  The challenge is that our evolved brains cannot distinguish between actual threats to our physical safety and perceived threats — like dreadful call centres.  And in reaction (not responses) to these perceived threats, our bodies go into fight or flight mode.

In full on fight mode with a computer, it dawned on me that I should practice what I teach in my Emotional Intelligence Workshops.  In my courses, I instruct participants on six steps of self-awareness and management.

First, notice if you are above or below the line.  In any moment we are either above, below, or on it.  In my case I was deep below the line in call centre hell.

Second, identify the feeling you are experiencing.  For me, it was raging impatience. 

Third, identify why you are feeling that way. Obviously it was because call centres are where the devil lives.

Fourth, ask yourself if the feeling identified is serving you for your best intended outcome in that very moment.  In my instance, as much as I disdain the call centre process, I had to be honest with myself and admit that my frustration was not really serving me or the outcome I wanted.

Fifth, if the answer to #4 was “yes,” then keep doing what you’re doing.  If its “no”, then ask yourself what feeling would best serve you for your best intended outcome. For me, fighting the call centre war would clearly not help with all of my guns loaded.  I needed to calm down.  A lot.

And sixth, ask yourself, “what could I do to shift those feelings that aren’t serving me to ones that could?” In my current predicament, there were loads of things I could have done: take a breath (or 12), go for a walk, or even better, shift my mindset to view this current frustration as a learning opportunity to practice one of my more underdeveloped skills: patience. 

Six easy steps to get above the line. 

I should past them on the back of my phone in preparation for my next credit card call centre melt down.

Casey Miller

Casey A. Miller, President of 6 ½ Consulting, is on a mission: to help create environments where people value one another. In his consultancy, this means teaching business owners and executives how to build workplaces that inspire. In return, their organizations see positive returns on their time, teams, and profits.

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