During the last two decades Contact or call centers have emerged as the answer to cost effectiveness for all sort of businesses that require back end customer services (Boreham et al., 2007). These call centers hailing from different countries are very similar with respect to markets, offered services, structure of the organization and type of workforce. This industry has flourished very quickly but usually these call centers are about ten to twelve years old hence still in infancy. Despite the similarities that exist across the globe in standards, processes and customers; are these call centers actually catering to the emotional side of this work.
Being a repetitive task with only a set of responses most of the time with no creativity and innovation in the services process added with long hours and no formal education on the subject, do these call centers affect labor in a negative manner?
Emotional Labor is a new term used first by Arlie Hochschild in her book "The Managed Heart" in 1983. If we see closely the practice itself is very old as suppression of emotions for greater good and doing good deeds for other while controlling ones instincts goes back to as early as introduction of first religion. Emotional labor is the control that is exercised by the worker which results in an appropriate and required manner (Chu, 2002). This means that the employee has to suppress or evoke certain emotions in order to exhibit and conform to emotions and behaviors that are required on the job. In order to understand emotional labor one must look in to, what determines the rational response to a situation? They can sometimes be policies, code of conduct or core values etc. stipulated by formal organizations for conformity to acceptable behavior and sometimes these are just "manners" (Mann, 2004).
There are many jobs that require a set of emotional displays. For example Nurses are expected to display care, kindness and empathy while in food service industry one expects friendliness and hygiene, Call center or customer care representatives to be knowledgeable and caring while one expects policemen to be calm and cool without prejudice. One factor that all of these jobs have is that they provide services to customers, face-to-face or over voice only. This interaction builds up the perception of a customer about the service provider. Hence in service sector the provider must emphasize on the importance of customer satisfaction to its employees through its practices, policies and other company literature. (Steinberg & Figart, 1999)
Emotional labor is practiced in either of the ways; surface acting or deep acting. Surface action means that the person suppresses the actual felt emotion and displays an artificial or fake emotion. Deep acting is means the person changes the felt emotions by controlling and enhancing internal thoughts and feelings, in order to exhibit the required emotion. (Diefendroff, 2005; Grandey 2000). These required emotions, company standards and conformity to policies are called display rule by Ekman (1973).
Emotion Labor theory has many factors contributing the enhancement of retail and service industries; Structuralism, on which Hochschild did a lot of work focuses on macro-social factors which means that emotions are understood by the audience. The subject is perceived as passive and in need of emotional management. Hence no space for self-actualization and innovation as individual understands its place in the prevailing social structure (Lupton 1998:21). Researches such as Scheff suggests that in an organizational setting and emotional labor one does not feels guilt as the conformity to norms in the team and the organization relates to the individual. For example getting an angry customer then becomes a norm within teams and is laughed at and has very low surface or deep effect amongst individuals. This conformity then results in pride while non-conformity is looked at as being strange as it is the norm amongst the other team members and is sometimes punished. In similar way if the standards provided by the customer services representative are the same then any negative comment has no negative effect on the individuals.
The cognitive theorists focus more on the emotional process then emotions. They suggest that individuals can understand their emotions and are emotionally aware resulting in decisions about self and other based on their emotions. Presenting such an emotion to others triggers reactions and dispositions. Emotional reactions are result of an informed understanding in which individuals look for consistency (in Lawler & Thye 1999:228-229). For example as per cognitive theory, the understanding of a situation by one service provider may differ entirely to the other. A stressing conversation between call center agent and customer may result in negative consequences and an unhappy customer but for another interaction a call center agent may come out unscratched emotionally as he conformed with the norms and customer's expectations were not realistic.
Phenomenological method focuses on meaningful and dynamic factors that shape our emotions and recognizes that subjects are capable of understanding and interpreting their emotions. Although this approach also suggests that one's emotions at workplace are governed by individual stances towards the world. (Finkelstein in Lupton 1998:21). For example a happier more satisfied person would react less to negative emotions directed towards him. This individual's attitude is shaped by one's positive experience and overall positive contribution for self and others. For example a person with a complete and better life, with a happy family, diet and hobbies may not react to negative emotions then an unhappy person with troubled life.
Social Exchange theory looks at emotional labor as set of exchanges and interactions and if an individual wants a similar response he should continue to behaving in that positive manner (Blau 1964:6). For example a call center agent may adopted one particular approach to every customer; a well-versed welcome and developed empathy for the customer may not get distressed due to a negative comment by customer.
While contemporary theorists see emotional labor as a set of negotiation and a binding contract that is set and agreed upon beforehand hence certain behaviors are to be expected from the interacting parties and benefiting both. Molm (1997, 1999). For example as per the nature of this industry the hiring manager may reveal to the incumbent that while making calls you may come across difficult customers; upon agreement the individual is hired and such patience is expected from him while on job. Hence the individual expects such a behavior from some angry customers and has conformity to the norms.
Like any call center, all service industries interact with customers on a daily basis. These jobs require a basic element of courtesy in employees for customers regardless of how the customer responds. This treatment given by the customer tends to be negative sometimes and it can have a very negative impact on the employee resulting in distress, hypertension and even heart diseases (Persaud, 2004). As a result of these negative consequences employees tend to suffer burnout and consequently lower their service standards.
This theory can be easily applied to employees working in a call center, although there is no face-to-face interaction between both parties but one single mistake by the agent can easily prompt the customer to behave in a negative manner. In this instance a customer only calls the service provider when he is not satisfied with the provided services or when things are not in order, immediately there is a usual queue of calls in which a customer waits for his turn. Additionally the customer is always right notion has also given awareness to the customer of being right no matter how he behaves with the service provider's representatives. Hence all these factors result in a communication where customer tends to enforce his point-of-view and misbehaves.
The agent has no choice but to stay calm and answer the queries of an enraged customer hence service providers are required to regulate or manage their "felt" emotions and display certain emotions for commercial purpose only. These "display" emotions have economic value which is transformed into salaries, bonuses, commissions or other benefits (Hochschild, 1983).
Emotional labor can also result in job satisfaction if the employee separate's the "felt" emotion and "display" emotions hence the resulting reward and quality of maintained services results in motivation.
The role of employee relationship department is very vital in promoting a conducive and friendly environment where a team can share its "felt" emotions to an extent. (Nicholls, 2003).
There is a possibility that one may lose a job or resign due to emotional labor or letting the felt emotion come out. This is a major point of concern for call centers with high attrition rates but human resource department can cater to these emotional stages using different motivating techniques.
First of all the HR department can develop a better work life for employees by providing certain flexibilities to the employees on request basis. In adopting such an approach a survey is conducted to analyze if workforce needs additional flexibility to existing schedule. Such flexibilities…