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Put People First During Tough Times at Your Contact Center

empathy

“People first”– a mantra adopted by organizations from the IRS to Lexus to Zappos – is a credo at the heart of some of the world’s most acclaimed companies. A key piece of the people first approach is keeping employees’ well-being at the center of our mission, our values, our culture, and our decision-making. And, of course, nothing challenges and tests our belief in people first like tough times.

We’ve been through tough times in our organizations before. Layoffs. Personal tragedies. Deaths. Acquisitions. Bankruptcy. Reorganization. COVID-19. Tough times have visited our contact centers before – and will again.

Right now, as we’re dealing with our current tough time, there are, of course, financial and organizational decisions to be made, and our businesses, our contacts centers, and our lives may look different before this is over. There’s so much we don’t have control over and none of us are certain what the future holds.

But what we do have is each other. And our personal commitment to putting people – each other – first. It’s easy to forget that one of the best ways for us to manage tough times is to find opportunities to reach out and help each other find our footing. I’ve put together some of my ideas about how managers and support staff can help employees and each other find solid ground in tough times. I’d love to hear yours.

Play The Tape Forward

Ask: What do I want others to remember about this tough time? How do I want others to feel about how they were treated by me and the company?

Modifying the old phrase, “tough times don’t last … but employees’ memories of how they were treated during tough times do.” This is a chance for managers and support staff to renew their commitment to the employees they support, and pause to consider, “How can I best help my team – or this person - right now?”

In March 2020, I took 15 minutes to play the tape forward, reflecting on my vision for my team over the next three months as we navigate the COVID-19 crisis:

  • I want employees to feel they were at the center of decisions which affected them and to see themselves – their perspectives, their values, their contributions - in how we navigated this time.
  • I want my colleagues to have felt heard, and that I prioritized listening and connecting.
  • I hope each of us learns something valuable about ourselves during this crisis, and we end this feeling stronger, more connected, and more resilient than when we started.

I try to revisit my list at the start and end of each day and jot down specific examples of met or missed opportunities. Doing this encourages me to find more meaning in my day-to-day work, especially when my work environment is extra-challenging, and examine how I can use my strengths and leverage my weaknesses to help others during this crisis.   

Put Yourself in the Driver’s Seat

Ask: What aspects of my work do I have control over today? What can I do about this situation to soften the edges, bring some levity, and add some humanity?

Companies implement policies, make decisions, and finance programs. But when I think about what I control – when I’m in the driver’s seat - it’s in my daily interactions with people I care for - my colleagues, my friends, and my work family.

I can rush through my day, in an effort to get as much done as possible because these are tough times, which means I have to tough it out. Or I can give “how are you doing?” a little space to breathe before rushing on to the business at hand. I can encourage employees to share their experiences, even when I’m a little burned out myself.

Tough times are not normal times. Stiff upper lips lead to burnout and frustration. Acknowledge that and allow employees to process what they’re going through. What can you do from your driver’s seat? Of course, it depends on your role, but here are many ideas well within the reach of any manager right now:

  • Create a shared site or social opportunity where employees can share their experiences with the tough time. A happy hour to say goodbye to laid off colleagues. A memories collage for an employee who has died. A slack channel for “work at home” ephemera.
  • Set up an instant message channel where you share and encourage employees to set daily or weekly intentions or goals, including self-care and stress management goals.
  • Or go in a totally different direction, and create a light diversion. Start a weekly photo (or haiku, drawing) contest with a theme, send out a care package of Skittles and coloring books, or anything that communicates “I’m thinking of you, and we are in this together.”

Connect with Empathy

Ask: How do employees feel about this situation or event? What are their concerns or fears? Are there additional non-work stressors – family, finances, health – in the mix?

When times are tough, employees don’t need platitudes. They don’t need to be told how to feel. Don’t worry, it will all be fine. I’m sure it will all work out. Look on the bright side, you still have a job. I’m sure you’ll find something else even better.

These aren’t terrible things to say. You could do worse, but you could do much, much better. Empathy, the cultivated ability to clearly understand the emotions of another, requires an intent to build a strong human connection.

Here are more empathetic phrases you could try:

  • “I can see why you’d be worried about this. It’s scary to not know what’s coming. What are you most worried about?”
  • “I agree, working at home can be really isolating. I’m having some of the same struggles. What have you tried so far?”
  • “It must be stressful to have so much on your shoulders. That seems like it would be really hard.”

Of course, empathy is a component of customer connection, too, and by practicing it, you’re modeling what it looks like in practice. Bonus!

If you’re interested in empathy as a self-development practice, great for coaches, managers and trainers, you can read more about its power here. When you’re ready for more, move on to the work of the reigning high priestess of empathy, Brené Brown.

Coach each other through it

During tough times, conditions are not ideal. People may be disappointed. Things may not have turned out as we hoped. There may be strong feelings to manage – anger, frustration, blame, grief.

The good news is there are skills – resiliency, adaptability, creative thinking, openness to new ideas, stress management, empathy – we can cultivate that will help us emerge unscathed on the other end. What can we do to coach each other through it?

Identify the distinct skills you feel are most important to cultivate within your team, and develop or source aligned training and support tools. Open source tools such as Coursera’s free Resilience Skills course, book clubs (Grit and Resilience are two great selections), and team meeting articles or video discussions, are good places to start.

Explore how the tough times skills are demonstrated and why they’re important, add them to your values and core expectations, add in coaching and self-reflection opportunities, and reward each other for practicing them. Our ability to face tough times becomes part of our shared story – we’ve gotten through tough times together, and together we can handle whatever comes next.


The most bulletproof business continuity plan doesn’t take into account the human factor of stressful, taxing events. Even if it did, “a plan” isn’t going to get us through this with connections intact and ready to take on the next challenge. Putting people first requires every one of us to reaffirm our daily commitment to help each other find solid ground in tough times. 

You can find a vast array of leadership skills and techniques like these at ICMI’s Virtual Training Symposium this June - a highly immersive training event for all types of contact center leaders."