Superheroes need saving too!

Anyone who has worked in the complaint handling industry will tell you that like any job, there are good and bad days. What isn’t like most other job is the emotional weight placed on a complaint handler when they have a 40 minute call with someone who alternates between swearing and shouting, and apologising and crying because they feel bad for shouting, and then back to shouting because they feel embarrassed they cried…



Have you ever thought about how you would describe what you do, to someone who had no idea what a complaint handler was or had never even heard of it as a concept? Picture this: You meet an alien, they have just arrived on earth, but speak perfect English. In their world they don’t have business, or transactions, they simply have all they need already. They ask you what you do. On a very basic level, you might say something like “I speak to unhappy people all day, and try to make them happy again.” They’d very likely think you were some kind of superhero, right?


If we look at the other industries that this description could also be applied to, I think we notice something quite interesting.


In industries where there are a lot of intense emotional interactions, and where the relationship could be described as helper/recipient, we already know that there is a high risk of burnout.


Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands.


This is an area that has been explored extensively in relation to talking therapies, nursing and teaching – but not for complaint resolution.


I remember my very first role in complaint handling. I fell into it by accident, and tried to quit after two months – determined I’d never listen to an irate customer again. Luckily for me, my boss at the time talked me round, listened to my concerns, and got me the support that I needed to be able to run an effective complaint handling department without becoming overwhelmed again. I owe him a huge amount, as choosing not to walk away from complaint handling led me to learn to love helping customers and the passion I feel for excellent customer experience today.


I once asked someone in an interview for a complaint handling role how she let off steam after a particularly complex complaint handling day with her previous team. She smiled and said ‘we had a box room, we just used to go and kick boxes.’ We all laughed, but she wasn’t actually joking. Stress is no joke.


Nearly half a million people in the UK have work-related stress at a level that makes them feel ill. – Bupa





Let’s examine the facts.


1. We are increasingly urged to empathise, to look at the human aspect of a complaint.


Having been at the receiving end of many escalated complaints, I can confirm that it’s not uncommon for customers to bring unrelated emotional issues to the table. Often the complaint is the straw that broke the camel’s back, and they are quite relieved to be able to get everything out to a complete stranger over the phone. A customer opening up about their particularly tough week, or their partner having recently been made redundant is often a sign we have done our jobs properly, shown empathy, and broken down the defensive barriers to enable us to get to the heart of what the complaint is really about. At the time this helps lend context to a complaint, I can’t help wondering if we are paying the toll to help our customers deal with their own emotions?


2. The average complaint handler will be expected to speak to anywhere between 15 and 50 customers a week.


That means that even at the lower end of this scale, they will have spoken to almost a thousand individuals a year. Most counsellors restrict the number of clients they see at any one time, and how many sessions they have in a week. Whilst it is certainly the case that complex emotions often bubble over into anger, most professional counsellors don’t have to deal with verbal abuse on a weekly basis as is often the case for a complaint handler. Yet they still have practices in place to ensure that any vicarious trauma they experience is resolved in a healthy way.


3. We are encouraged to speak professionally about customers at all times


If we are to ensure that customers get our respect, and that we continue to empathise, then we need to stop referring to them in any way that allows us to subconsciously see them as not deserving of an impartial complaint investigation and help to resolve their issue, (my recent article on learning to love complaints deals with this area in more detail) but that leave us with a new problem, which is – who do complaint handlers complain to?


We don’t want to go home and vent our frustrations at our spouses or children… (something I can admit to on more than one occasion). We don’t take our frustrations out on our customers – obviously that would be highly inappropriate and negate the whole point of the customer service industry. We don’t take our frustrations out on our colleagues, they have a tough time too and we are in the trenches together – the camaraderie won’t allow anything to bubble over, or in theory that’s the culture we encourage. So is it time to look at how we cleanse the potentially toxic resentments inherent to complaint handling, as opposed to letting them out in an explosive, unpredictable way and potentially damaging those we care about?


So what can we do? And most importantly, what should all good employers do?


We can start by acknowledging that burnout is a real thing, and that anyone who understands complaint handling can see that if it applies to counselling, psychotherapy and teaching, it definitely applies to complaint handling. We have a duty to safeguard our employees, that is not debatable.





One potential approach is what we refer to at Think Wow as – The Tripod.


A tripod is the ultimate stable structure. It can never wobble, even when on an uneven surface. We think it’s the perfect random item to influence a support culture. We like to think that if we start to address the emotional needs of our staff, with a three legged approach, your team will reach a similar level of stability.


Immediate needs – Nothing feels worse than reaching out to genuinely try to help someone only to have them become aggressive, confrontational or verbally abusive. No matter how much we may try to increase our resilience against such attacks, our natural instinct towards fight or flight takes over. When we feel attacked, we feel unsafe. This triggers a neurological response that actually makes it harder for us to think, and even to see. We are no longer in a good place to try and structure sentences, which can make us trip over our words and make an already stressful situation far worse. The result is that we put the phone down and feel emotional, shaken – even scared. If we are unlucky and we work in a particularly busy environment we may even have to get straight back on the phone.


Implement the ‘cup of tea’ rule.

The cup of tea rule encourages two things. Firstly, it encourages team members to take note when a colleague is clearly on one of those calls. Once they have spotted a colleague is struggling, they should go and get them a hot drink of their choice as a show of solidarity, a kind gesture and to help with the inevitable dry mouth that comes from high stress situations. Then make it mandatory for that call handler to take at least a ten-minute tea break to calm their nerves and get back on an even keel before picking the phone up again. By making it mandatory you reduce the risk that people will consider taking a break to recover their emotional wellbeing as something that is not an accepted part of the culture.


Short term needs – If we recognise that dealing with complaints on a daily basis may well have a cumulative effect, and result in stressors that increase rather than ebb and flow in direct correlation to work load, it becomes apparent that we need to offer our teams a way to vent. Implement a buddy system – akin to counsellor supervision sessions, but with the sole purpose to let a staff member discuss any particularly challenging customers, and speak their mind about how they felt at the time.


There are some guidelines for how these should work.


1. The buddy must never be a line manager or supervisor, but a peer who understands the challenges the staff member faces

2. Any discussion about a particular customer should be anonymised – refer to the customer as ‘the customer’ only.

3. This should be a weekly occurrence behind closed doors – it must be confidential in nature so the staff member can feel free to get anything troubling them off their chest.


Long term needs – If your company is large enough and has the budget, consider investing in talking therapies for complaint handlers on a semi-regular basis. Proactive management of emotions can prevent damage to mental health, and can often benefit the business in a reduction of sick days, better performance, and lower staff turnover. Ultimately - it shows you care.


Invest in hiring enough people to comfortably handle complaints. If we can stop seeing complaints as a negative, and instead look at the massive opportunity they represent for our long-term customer experience strategy, then it’s just common sense to ensure this part of our businesses is adequately resourced. Taking the time pressures out of the equation for our team reduces stress and ensures a higher quality experience for any customer who has already been feeling let down (certain organisations now implement a minimum call time target as opposed to a maximum, to encourage call handlers to get to the heart of the issue and give the customer a high-quality service).


Regardless of whether you have a large budget or not, you should make it a top priority to increase learning that can help protect your team. Have a manager look at every single call where a customer became aggressive or abusive. Were there any training tools that the call handler could have benefitted from that would have enabled a calmer discussion? Could manager intervention sooner have turned things down a notch? If there is anything that can be done in the wider organisation to ensure customers don’t feel so let down in the first instance, then this should be shared too and the whole business should make it a priority to protect the complaint handling team. After all, often it’s the other way around.

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