Communication Skills for Call-Handlers

The issue

Call-handlers of a high-street Bank’s HR, Employment Law and Litigation advice services are at the forefront of delivering added-value, quality customer care to small businesses.  It is, however, the nature of the services that most customers contact the Bank for such advice only when there is a legal or regulatory issue or problem.  It is then often difficult for call-handlers to balance the Bank’s priority for quality customer care with its duty to clarify the non-negotiable aspects of the law, and to recommend courses of action that customers often find difficult.

The solution

A series of communication skills workshops for call-handlers enabled participants to have a greater understanding of their preferred communication style and the communication styles of their customers, before considering how they might adapt their style to fit each customer better while remaining appropriately assertive about what is non-negotiable.

The workshops began with an inquiry into call-handlers’ experience:

  • What makes the call experience as productive as possible for the customer and for you?
  • What makes the call experience difficult and challenging?
  • What needs to change?

Inquiry findings were explored using Transactional Analysis (TA), a theory and methodology of communication, interaction and relationship, developed by the late Eric Berne MD in the USA in the early 1950s.  TA offers valuable insights and processes to facilitate individual, group and organisational development, growth and change.

Fundamental to TA are its assumptions that:

  • People are OK
  • People have the capacity to think for themselves
  • People are capable of bringing about change in themselves.

Those who use TA as a frame of reference for their work understand these assumptions and hold them in mind in believing in:

  • The intrinsic worth of themselves and their customers
  • The autonomy of their customers to make their own wise decisions
  • Their customers’ capacity and capability to take appropriate action.

We also considered the implications of the tri-partite, three-cornered contracts that need to be brokered between call-handler and customer in every client relationship, if not in every call:

Tri-partite (Berne, 1966)

  • Procedural — covering administrative arrangements of the calls and the customer case that will emerge
  • Professional — covering the objectives and outcomes of the calls and how the advice will be taken forward by the customer
  • Psychological — covering the underlying dynamics between call-handler and customer.

Three-cornered (English, 1975)

  • The call-handler’s frame of reference and contract with the Bank
  • The customer’s frame of reference and contract with the Bank
  • The call-handler’s and the customer’s frame of reference and contract with each other.

We then looked at the helpful and unhelpful communication styles that are likely to emerge from different mindsets that both call-handler and customer might have, and explored and experimented with the dynamics of the transactions that each mindset might generate.  Frames of reference and mindsets are both fully explained in my blog TA, Consultancy and the Scope for Intervention and Change. Transactions will be the subject of a future blog.

The workshops ended with further experimentation on the mindsets and transactions that will help call-handlers to support their customers in difficult situations while being appropriately assertive — and neither directive, colluding nor rescuing — about what is not negotiable, and how their customers could best take that forward.

The outcome

Participant evaluations of their learning and its application mentioned a new and different perspective on the familiar dynamics of HR, Employment Law and Litigation call-handling, greater awareness of their preferred communication style and how it impacts on the communication styles of their customers, and a new energy and confidence in their ability to manage difficult conversations with people in difficulties.

The Taylor Clarke Partnership

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"Yemen LNG has now matured to the stage where these lessons and values are being delivered by internal resources and this is directly due to the quality of coaching, training, guidance and facilitation which was delivered by the consultants’ multi-talented and highly versatile team. We continue to apply the lessons learned, and are a stronger organisation as a result."

By Phil Campbell, Yemen LNG HR Director

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