Updated: Sep 6, 2022
Someone (whose name I will omit for privacy reasons) asked me recently if I had any advice about handling stress in the customer-service industry. The individual in question expressed their frustration at the sheer volume of work they are taking on after a couple of their co-workers quit within a short period.
In their words, and I agree, the customer service industry is often the most mentally stressful industry to work in. I have worked various jobs providing customer services, such as IT support and the food and beverage industry, so I understand where they are coming from.
The truth is that this is the first time I have ever written a blog post specifically for an individual benefit and not a broad audience. I was more than happy to oblige, though, as not only would writing up a post help give insights into ways to do their job more efficiently, but it would also help me do my part in achieving a marginally improved world (even if so small it cannot be observed).
Whenever possible, I have always been about helping the individual (or a group of individuals in an organization) before the unseen and undefined collective. In my mind, an individual is an observable, tangible being where assistance and educational benefits are often seen in the individual almost immediately. In comparison, large groups and organizations are often faceless, and, as a result, the immediate aid of providing direct assistance often comes across as a fool's errand. For this reason, I am hesitant to donate my time or money to places where I cannot see where it will go directly. To quote Mother Theresa:
"I never look at the masses as my responsibility; I look at the individual."
Say what you will about her, religion, philanthropy, and any other controversial topics, but I agree with what she is trying to say. If you try to help too many people at once, the quality of your efforts will degrade and, in the worst-case scenario, have no positive effect. In my opinion, focusing on what can be seen and directly improved upon is the best way to improve the state of the world.
I digress, in any case. The following is a list of the first ten tips I could immediately think of that I provided my co-worker. Since I just offered them a list at the time, I promised I would flesh these out later. This post is me delivering on that promise. While I wrote this post for one individual, I hope at least one other person may find some benefit to what I am sharing!
1. Find creative outlets where you produce something of perceived value outside of work.
This tip may not be immediately clear-cut and understandable, which is why I decided to start with it first. I have found that I can focus and remain calm at work when I have a clear state of mind, among other things. Writing is one thing I do to focus my mind.
Writing for me is a means to collect and provide my thoughts, be part of something larger than myself, and help myself and others make money. The best part: outside of contractual obligations with clients, all writing I do is something I choose to do, as I inherently have come to enjoy it.
How does this tie into dealing with stressful situations at my current job? It means a variety of things, but I think it helps the most knowing that I have a venue to creatively express myself while inflicting no verbal or physical harm to anyone. While this may not be the most beneficial tip overall, I still feel it is worth vocalizing and keeping in mind.
2. Put everything, especially the customer's situation, in perspective. Do not assume anything and remain rationally empathetic.
In a perfect world, all customers and potential buyers would act rationally in all situations. However, this is not a perfect world by any realistic means. Even putting aside anything related to client-business relations, the sheer amount of variables between people and groups is staggering when adequately reflected upon.
Let me explain what I mean with a shortlist of just a handful of the negative things that can occur before, during, and after business transactions:
A product or service is faulty.
A product or service did not meet the client or clients' expectations.
Vital information was not provided or clearly explained.
Either time or money, possibly both, was not optimally used before, during, and after the business transaction.
The product or service caused someone or a group to become sick or injured (or killed in the worst-case scenario).
The client is in a bad mood immediately before conducting business, leading to many potential negative occurrences.
This list includes just six of the things I immediately thought up, and there are undoubtedly countless other possibilities that could occur. Much of this, upon initial glance, is not perceivable. Therefore, without understanding or care, the problem cannot be seen.
Naturally, the best course of action is to rectify the issue. If you cannot resolve it, your next step should be to obtain assistance in solving it. If it is a situation that is impossible to solve, though, why should you worry at all? Worrying and dwelling upon unsolvable problems often lead good men and women down the wrong path.
Keeping what I cannot immediately see on my mind at all times, I have found, has helped me to reduce stress. In my experience, most people do not wish to be rude for no reason; there is a problem that is troubling them, whether apparent or not. As long as I keep this in mind, staying calm and carrying on is much easier.
3. Try to find humor in everything, whenever possible and appropriate.
I will keep this section brief, as its benefit should be very apparent. Humor is scientifically shown to have positive mental benefits to one's mental health. Life is often absurd; pointing out and laughing at these absurdities is the basis of most forms of comedy.
I am not saying to laugh at the absurdity of negative situations you find yourself in; in fact, this is what I have found you should not do in these situations. Instead, observing and appreciating humorous situations will help take the edge off when dealing with a problem requiring delicacy and careful verbal handling.
4. Focus on using and further developing your strengths (while evening out and outsourcing your weaknesses).
Focusing on your strengths and applying them is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Gallop's StrengthsFinder 2.0 test is a great way to quantify your strengths better and identify what you excel in. Here are my top five and bottom three strengths, as well as a brief description of my understanding of each:
1. Connectedness - I easily understand the causality between events and how things are connected.
2. Individualization - I tend to focus on individuals and their strengths rather than the collective.
3. Input - I like to collect and synthesize what I have, usually information and facts.
4. Communication - I like explaining, describing, hosting, speaking, and writing.
5. Arranger - I like to see and handle variables and how they connect and optimize them.
34. Belief - I have a hard time committing myself to one core belief; in other words: if I am presented with new information, I tend to adjust my values quickly. Personally, I see this as a good thing.
33. Discipline - While I often create plans and frameworks, I tend to be flexible and modify these as needed. When planning, I like to have a loose guideline with milestones and focus on filling the gaps in time with the most immediately logical and practical steps possible while leaving room for adjustments. Depending on the situation, this can be a good or bad thing. However, I can be extremely rigid whenever situations call for it.
32. Positivity - While I am not a pessimist, I have a hard time being overly optimistic about things. I have read enough history, current events, read about psychological studies, and more that have shaped my perspective on the world. While I remain hopeful about the world, I feel that humanity as a whole is often a case of 'two steps forward, one step back.' My hope, therefore, is that one of the steps backward is not something so drastic as nuclear war or whatnot. Despite this, I have hope that the greater, more lawful elements of humanity will always suppress the more primal and chaotic.
How do I apply this information to my current job of providing technical support? I do what I can to understand the situation (connectedness), try to understand the problem affects the individual or the individual employees (individualization), document and write down information about the case (input), speak with them about the situation to probe for further information (communication) and try to a variety of troubleshooting steps to attempt to correct the problem to the best of my ability (arranger).
Identifying and applying your strengths is rarely a cut-and-dry process. Again, this is why I heavily encourage evaluating your strengths through a test like StrengthsFinder 2.0 to clearly understand what you excel in. Beyond this, applying your strengths in your current position (or finding a job that heavily utilizes your strengths) is an effective way to help reduce the stress you encounter on the job.
5. Aim to achieve balance in everything you do.
I could easily get lost in describing the topic of balance, so I will keep this section brief. As I have found, the key to achieving happiness, or at least being less stressed, is not to spend too much time or effort on any one thing. Instead, focusing your efforts on what you are good at is the best way to live a meaningful life inside and outside work.
While not every job will allow for natural balance, the best way to compensate for this is to seek methods to offload specific tasks to others whenever possible. Tying in with the theme of utilizing your strengths and focusing on achieving a balance in doing what you are good at should allow both you and your company, as a whole, to achieve positive results.
6. Avoid dwelling too long upon negative thoughts.
This is another topic that requires little expansion. Frequently having negative thoughts are shown to have detrimental effects on your mood, outlook on life, and your ability to achieve goals.
Reducing the number of negative thoughts you actively have is a great way to drastically lower your stress level. This is easier said than done, however. My best advice for this is to meditate. Meditating, even briefly, has a variety of effects. These include but are not limited to reduced stress, improved memory, deeper sleep, and more.
7. NEVER take anything personally; however, do not let yourself become utterly indifferent to the struggles of others.
This point essentially ties in with the second point I made. Have you ever had someone call you a name that isn't very nice? Unless they are beyond help, there is probably a reason for this.
Once again, anything negative the customer says about you that is not true should not be taken too seriously; this is likely because they are frustrated. In cases like this, your best bet is to focus on reaching the root of the problem.
If the customer continues to be irrationally verbally abusive despite your best efforts, this is beyond what you can control. Therefore, it is in your best interest to be logically indifferent to what they say and not pay much heed to it. Their struggles, at this point, are beyond what you are societally obligated to resolve. You are there to provide service and solve problems; you are not a psychiatrist.
To recap: focus on solving an aggressive customer's problem to the best of your ability, but keep your mind and skin thick.
8. Avoid multitasking; be selectively single-minded, and focus on doing one thing to the best of your ability.
This, to me, is easily the most challenging of these ten principles to follow. I often find myself trying to do too much at one time, especially since COVID has left us short-staff as of this writing. These days, I am trying to focus on doing one thing at a time to the best of my ability. I've learned you can't help everyone, especially not all at once.
In cases where your workload is excessive, the best bet is to selectively choose your battles. While I do not mean you should not care about those waiting to be helped, trying to do two or more tasks simultaneously will often reduce quality. Whenever possible, focus only on helping one person at a time before moving on to the next. If a client becomes angered by their wait, you can rest easy knowing that you did everything in your power to help the previous clients and that you can single-mindedly focus on them
9. Try to gain insights and perspectives from various people and ideologies and, whenever relevant, incorporate them into your daily life.
One thing that I feel has helped shape me into a better person is reading and studying from various sources. Whether it is learning the ways of the Stoics, reading the principles of the samurai, or hearing the teachings of the Buddha, I have learned much from individuals and civilizations of the past.
While I still and always will have much to learn, what I currently know has equipped me to handle stress better. While reading philosophy may not be everyone's cup of tea, it has been tremendously valuable to me and something that I encourage everyone who seeks out self-improvement.
10. Actively apply the previous nine tips and try to go out of your way to practice them whenever possible.
This last principle may be a bit of a copout when providing ten unique examples, but if I'm not actively following the previous nine principles whenever I can, I am doing myself an enormous disservice. While the prior ten may not be the most effective or even always applicable principles to follow, I feel they are generally pretty evergreen and can benefit most people.
Bonus Section: 12 Rules of Life, as written by Jordan Peterson
While these 12 rules did not directly inspire my list, this book is an excellent read there is some crossover with this topic. I am including a summary of the 12 rules Peterson wrote about in his book. I highly encourage checking out the book, as the rules he lists can benefit everyone. Most of the rules make sense out of context; some may not, though, which is why I encourage spending time reading the book.
1. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. 2. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. 3. Make friends with people who want the best for you. 4. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today. 5. Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them. 6. Set your house in perfect order before you criticize the world 7. Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient). 8. Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie. 9. Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t. 10. Be precise in your speech. 11. Do not bother children when they are skateboarding. 12. Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street.
This topic is broad and something that very well could be expanded into the length of an entire book. Nevertheless, I try to apply these ten tips and principles daily, especially when working with others. While I cannot say I always follow each one perfectly, I aim to do so whenever possible. In the end, I am often less stressed than many others are, and it is largely because I have a loose framework on how to both live and work.