Acknowledging ‘Emotional Labour’ and helping employees deal with it

Written by
Hamsini Ravi

The customer service function in a business is instrumental in retaining customers and determining their loyalty, it is also an essential ingredient in building a brand’s reputation given its constant interface with customers. The Zendesk Customer Experience Trends Report in 2022 stated that more than 60% of customers tend to deflect to a competing brand after a single poor experience with a customer service agent. Yet, a 2020 survey by the Institute of Customer Service showed that over half of all customer-facing staff have experienced abuse from customers.

While customer service professionals are held accountable for the product and the service delivery, they have no real control over strategic or operational decisions taken by the organisation or by partners they depend on. ‘Most of our clients contact us regarding high-stress situations such as reimbursement of hospital expenses and death claims. Many of the transactions run into lakhs of rupees and there is obviously restlessness on the part of the client for the money to hit their bank account immediately. Here, my team has to deliver the news that the money hitting the customer’s bank account is conditional on submission of documents,’ says Dr. Sandeep Menon, who leads the Claim department of an Insurtech startup in Bangalore.

What is ‘Emotional Labour’ and how does it play out at work? 

Customer service professionals often find themselves in the line of customer ire, ranging from indifference, lack of empathy, and rudeness to downright abuse. With most customer service now online, through voice calls, text messages and email, abuse is more rampant than it would be in a face-to-face situation. Four decades ago, American Sociologist Arlie Russel Hochschild coined and defined the term ‘emotional labour’ in her award-winning book, ‘The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling’, as the act of having to regulate or manage one’s emotions to fulfil a professional purpose.  Hochschild argued that a third of American men and half of American women held jobs that involved emotional management to serve a commercial purpose.

While ‘emotional labour’ is not uncommon to every working professional (think of the times one has to smile and socialise with toxic colleagues or put up with a bully boss to snag that promotion or bonus), it is more pressing and pronounced in the case of customer service executives who have to do it everyday (even multiple times a day) with unknown customers; many of whom might cross the line. 

An average customer service agent spends 8 hours handling phone calls, explains Kishore Naren* (name changed to protect anonymity), a senior customer service professional, who has worked with leading e-commerce firms. ‘Whatever the customer says and does, you have to remain calm and ensure that you service their requirements. 

Take the following conversation for example (while such conversations are not par for course, they are not uncommon for a customer service executive). 

‘Hello. The shirt that I received 10 days after the app said I would, is stained and soiled. I did not receive the socks I had ordered as well. I need a refund for both right now. Don’t you have any brains? Don’t you know how to do your job properly? How are you running a business?’

‘Don’t be rude irrespective of how the call goes,’ are the words that Varsha Bhanusali’s manager told her.  Through the normalising of customer ire there is constant pressure on humans who work in customer care roles to deliver top-notch service, keep their emotions in check and smile through it all. There is a double-binding situation here - where customer service professionals are expected to solve the customer’s needs, while also ensuring that they don’t over-deliver or over-commit on behalf of the business. ‘In cases where there is a delay in service delivery, an ordinary inbound agent does not have the power to commit to specific timelines in resolving customer issues. She may lose her job if she attempts to pacify the customer falsely,’ says Kishore.

While customer centricity is an important business value, one should know where to draw the line. Aamna Khan, Founder and CEO, Binks, a Y-Combinator-backed, personal fashion brand opines, ‘I think businesses should be able to strike a balance between serving their customers as well as doing right by their staff. It is important to know when to fire a customer. I’m a huge believer in this.’ Binks has two sets of staff who interact regularly with customers, their customer delight team works virtually on text, email and phone calls whereas their designers meet their customers physically, in their homes, for fashion consults. ‘We instituted uniforms for our designers to build a sense of brand identity and cohesion but found that certain customers actually treated them worse. Designers wearing uniforms made some customers think of them as blue-collar workers, which somehow made them justify their derogatory behaviour towards our staff,’ explains Aamna. ‘In an extreme case of abuse towards one of our designers, we have actually banned the customer from our platform,’ she adds.

How can managers and the company help?

Of course, while not every business can afford to lose every abusive customer, they can look critically and explore ways to make the employee experience in customer service better. ‘While planning for human resources allocations, businesses must bake in downtimes, otherwise, they tend to be hit by employee burnout and high attrition rate,’ suggests Kishore. ‘They could also use a percentage approach while evaluating performance and enforcing quality control. For instance, if a service executive is handling 60 calls, allow at least 5 instances where the resolution is not satisfactory,’ he adds. Kishore also suggests a more distributed rewards and recognition system, where instead of high benchmarks and rewarding only the top three performers, smaller rewards are instituted. ‘I tried this approach with a team I was leading and distributing the rewards system actually worked and I saw higher-than-average performance levels across the team’.

Empowering the customer-facing team with the right kind of tools, easy-to-access information and squeaky-clear internal communication circuits can go a long way in facilitating agency, which can help them perform their job well, feels Aamna. There is also a need to have both intra-company and public-facing advocacy on the challenges faced by people working in customer service. ‘In one of my previous workplaces, we experimented with our senior leadership having to handle two customer calls every month. This was so that they could experience the challenges of working with customers and empathise better with our team,’ says Kishore. 

In early 2020, Swiggy rolled out a campaign, #WhattheFalooda to sensitise customers to the psychological and emotional impact of abuse on their customer care representatives. In a signature move, the campaign microsite also offers a browser extension that highlights profanities in your text and suggests replacing them with names of food items.

One idea for businesses is to create and amplify a zero-tolerance to abuse policy, across their customer support functions and hold every customer interaction to the tenets and consequences outlined in the policy. Large-scale advocacy and policy implementation is the right path to effect transformative changes in the customer service sector, undoubtedly. But it is a marathon and not a sprint. Until then, workplaces should institute changes that could not only support their customer service department to do their best work, but also to live emotionally healthy lives. Leadership can offer professional mental health support to employees who need them, organise more team bonding activities and provide a safe working environment, where employees are encouraged to speak to teammates and managers, instead of working in silos,’ says Dr. Sandeep. 

To sum up, here is how companies can help:

  1. Bake in staff downtimes and mental health breaks while planning human resources and headcount
  2. Use percentage approaches to evaluate the performance of customer care staff, eg, 90% of calls need to be satisfactory to the customer
  3. Consider instituting a zero-tolerance policy to abuse and don’t service customers after 1 or more violations
  4. Smaller rewards but given more often and across a wider set of staff, by making good performance criteria more inclusive and wide-ranging
  5. Create a buddy system where customer care staff can talk about their highs and lows to a trusted teammate during a dedicated weekly hour check-in.


Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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