The Big "S": Adapting to Stress in Customer Support

Sometimes the best wake-up call comes in the form of a challenging situation. Imagine a typical Wednesday morning, and a customer service agent named Kelly has just arrived at her job at an online store. Her work mostly involves interacting with customers and vendors through email and live chat, and in general, she enjoys helping people and takes great pride in delighting her customers.

But today when she sits down at her desk, she sees two dozen emails, and they all seem urgent and important. They practically jump off the screen.

“I need help with a return, and I can’t find anyone who’s available!” says one customer.

“My order never arrived,” says another. “It was a gift for my 8-year-old son’s birthday and now it’s going to be late.”

“Your company is the worst ever!” says the next. “My package arrived damaged and If you don’t refund my money immediately, I’m never using you again.”

After reading the third message, Kelly begins to feel shaken. Her teeth clench and her shoulders tighten, and she slouches in her chair. With her free hand, she reaches for a candy bar that’s stashed in her purse.  This is only the first few emails, and there are more than a dozen others waiting for her attention. Her mind begins to race. How am I going to help everyone? This is too much! Where do I even start?

Suddenly, she wishes she could just go home instead of facing her workload.

Sound familiar?

This is a day-in-the-life of a customer service professional. As someone who works in the field, you probably know exactly how Kelly’s feeling. You’ve experienced it firsthand, right? Your environment is fast-paced and intense, full of ongoing (unpredictable) problems that need to be solved. In other words,  stress is part of your job description.

And the truth is that if it's not managed properly, your day-to-day routine can become completely overwhelming. Employees suffer, and so do customers. Over time, this impacts every aspect of the organization, including the bottom line.

At HelpSpot we get it, because we’re in it, too. Our goal is to continually delight our customers while retaining great employees, and we realize that this starts behind the scenes, with staff well-being.

Because we're committed to professional growth, we wanted to know more about stress and how humans can better adapt. So we took a look at the history of stress research, and we also talked with a couple of experts in the field.  What we found was interesting! Ready to learn?

The Origins of Stress

Although this may be surprising, it turns out that the term “stress” wasn’t originally used in the context of humans at all. Historically, the term was used by physicists when they were studying the concepts of metals and force. As in, they discovered that a metal bar would snap under exertion, or stress.

(This is a pretty accurate analogy for the human body, yes?)

Which is probably why in the 1920’s, doctor Hans Selye, considered by many to be the father of stress research in humans, decided to apply the same term to his observations of his medical patients. He noticed that all of his patients-- no matter their ailment-- looked sick. He attributed this to what he called “physical stress.”

After more research, Selye found that body stress causes the release of related hormones (like adrenalin and cortisol), and he coined the term General Adaptation Syndrome, which is the human body’s reaction to both short and long-term physical stress. The syndrome has three stages:

  1. Alarm Reaction: Our immediate reaction to a stressor, also know as “fight or flight.” This stage results in reduced immune system function.

  2. Resistance: After prolonged time in Stage 1, the body becomes accustomed to feeling stressed. Energy levels are reduced and the immune system suffers further.

  3. Exhaustion: In other words, burnout. The body’s immune system is significantly compromised, causing increased susceptibility to stress-related disorders like heart attacks or infections.

If we apply Selye’s findings to the example we provided with customer service agent Kelly, it’s easy to see that the list of emails she experienced first thing in the morning threw her into an Alarm Reaction. Her immediate response was to flee!

But unable to flee, because Kelly needs the job (and genuinely likes it, for the most part!), we can also see why it’s so important for her to learn how to manage her stress versus prolonging it. What she’s experiencing is real-- clenched shoulders and teeth, slouched back, reaching for sugar as a comfort-- and can’t be ignored. If she waits too long, she will become increasingly unhealthy. Eventually she will break, just like the metal bar the physicists used in their experiments.

And that goes for you, too.  If you don't take care of yourself, you suffer, and so do your customers. 

So, what can you do to manage the “Stress” part of your job description?

In talking with experts, we discovered that we need to look at two different categories of stress in customer service:

  1. Managing your workload

  2. Dealing with challenging customers

First, Focus on You

Expert Josh Kaufman, bestselling author of The Personal MBA: Master the Art of Business believes that first and foremost, there’s great benefit in addressing both your overall well-being and your overwhelming workload. “Our bodies aren’t really designed for the chronic stress that exists in customer support,” he says. “We’re not well-equipped to deal with this psychologically or physically.”

Along the same lines as Selye's General Adaptation Syndrome, Kaufman says that humans respond to chronic stress with something he calls threat lockdown. In customer support, this is very pronounced. “When we look at our queue, we think, ‘Oh my gosh, there’s a problem, oh my gosh, there’s a problem. And on and on,’” he says. “Our mind keeps us from focusing on other things. Parts of the brain shut down.”

What’s important to understand about this state is that it’s just as much physiological as psychological. It's essential to consider both, in order to approach your job from a centered place. Here are 3 helpful tips:

  • Get exercise: Releasing physical stress is key, so choose whatever works best for you, whether it’s going to the gym, walking or biking to work, practicing yoga, or another form of physical activity. During breaks at work, get up and move around instead of sitting in your chair. 

  • Calm your mind: Great ways to release psychological stress include meditation, yoga, deep breathing, and time in nature. It’s also important to get adequate sleep at night, so your mind can rejuvenate.

  • Detach from your stressors:  A useful thing to understand about threat lockdown is to simply recognize that it’s not you, it’s your body. If you can look at your stressor (i.e. your help desk queue) and notice what’s happening to your body and step back from that, you’ll feel much more balanced.

Okay, now that you're centered, it's time to consider the next step: Getting organized. As in, managing your help desk tickets. In doing so, Kaufman likes to think of the concept of cognitive scope limitation. “We can only juggle so many things in our mind before our brain starts freaking out and saying, ‘Oh, hell, no,’” he says. “We need to understand that there are only so many things we can focus on in a given moment.”

Understanding this alone might offer you some relief! You may be super, but you don't have superpowers. You can only do so much!

As a result, it’s all about managing your workload. Here's Kaufman's best advice on how to do this: 

  1. Have a formal system in place: The great thing about standard operating procedures is that they take what appears unmanageable and make it more process-based. This means you don’t have to put so much thought and emotion into things. For example,  canned responses are really helpful, because you can answer a customer effectively without the emotional and mental toll. 

  2. Use lead scoring or customer scoring: Instead of looking at a long list of undifferentiated requests,  ask yourself, “How important is this person to my business?” Although this doesn’t help the volume issue, it does help the stress issue, because you have a way to determine what you need to be addressing first.

  3. Use the “time since last reply” metric: On the managerial side, this seems to make the most difference. It’s always helpful to remember that there’s another person on the other side of the interaction. A lot of times the customer doesn’t even need a full resolution, they just want to be heard. So it’s helpful to have standards on how quickly you get back to them.

Dealing with "Challenging" Customers

The second part of coping with stress in your job has to do with the inevitable dissatisfied or angry customers. In order to glean insight into this (complicated) topic, we talked to Randi Busse, President of the Workforce Development Group and author of Turning Rants Into Raves: Turn Your Customers On Before They Turn On YOU!

Busse says that people who choose to work in customer service need to focus on the premise that they are there to help people. Which means solving problems. Some people are easy to help and some are more difficult to help. But the key is to look at a difficult customer as a possibility.

“When I was delivering customer service on the frontline myself, I used to look at irate customers as a challenge,” she says. “Perhaps they’d spoken with others in my organization who weren’t able to help them; however, I hadn’t been given the opportunity to do so. I would take that on as a challenge that I was going to be the one to solve their problem or resolve their issue. And many times I did just that!”

So, what's the best way to do this?

Here’s is some great advice for dealing with (and understanding) challenging customers:

  • Remember, we’re all human. Keep in mind that the customer is someone’s mother, father, sister, neighbor, child. They are a human being. We need to be able to use empathy, to walk in their shoes and see things from their perspective. Ask yourself the question, “If this were happening to me, how would I feel, and what would I want to happen?"

  • Be present. When someone is coming to you with a problem or issue, the first thing they want is to be heard and acknowledged. Yes, they want their issue resolved, but first they want validation of the problem and acknowledgement that you heard them.

  • Apologize. Don’t hesitate to acknowledge the customer’s frustration. Say, “I’m so sorry to hear about this and I can definitely help you take care of this.”

  • Do your best. Often you can answer the customer's question or solve their problem, and this is ideal! But sometimes you’re unable to fix things and you need to ask a supervisor or solicit other help. If you do this, make sure the customer understands the plan and that you follow through.

  • Did we mention that you’re human? If things continue to escalate and the customer becomes abusive, or if your own attitude becomes compromised, don’t hesitate to ask your supervisor for help. Often a new voice can change the tone of the interaction. This is good for everyone involved!

In the end, all situations get resolved one way or another, and the great news is that you'll learn a lot through each one, which will empower you to be even more effective the next time around. This will lead to more confidence and less stress, more happiness in your job, and delighted customers.

Plus, you'll be unbreakable, unlike those metal bars that the physicists used in their experiments. 


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About the author

Carrie Visintainer of

Carrie is a marketer at UserScape and author of the book Wild Mama.

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