There’s been a sea change in the last five years in how people talk about health and wellbeing in the workplace, and the wellbeing of customer service employees is vital. We’ve known for some time that there’s a strong correlation between employee and customer satisfaction, but companies are just starting to define employee satisfaction beyond the historic metrics of job security, pay and benefits. We need to think about wellbeing in a different way: looking at health to ensure it not only includes mental health, but also holding the physical work environment and a company’s culture to account.

In customer service, it’s especially important to think about the environment in the contact centre as the people here are, for many customers, the only representative of that company they will talk to. It’s essential to make sure the environment is conducive to the best possible interaction. This also applies to outsourced customer service operations, where representatives may not feel like direct employees but must be considered as such, as they’re talking to your customers every day and their wellbeing is just as important.

Great customer service is all about people – on both sides of the interaction – and this is all too easy to forget in an age of chatbots and automated communications. Customer service agents are on the receiving end of the full range of human emotions in their working day, from anger to elation, and their role is to take it in their stride and respond in an appropriate, productive, nurturing way. But who’s nurturing them? If they are feeling uninspired, in an uninspiring office, and facing a constant stream of negativity without support and training, it is short-sighted to assume your customer service agents will want to stay with you long-term, or positively reflect your brand.

Smart companies are realising that tangible changes in the workplace improve wellbeing. Nike’s East Coast base, spanning six colossal floors, features a full-size basketball court designed to engage and encourage its customer service teams. The retail giant wanted to ramp up its digital output but recognised if it wanted to deliver better, more personal customer service at scale, it had to start thinking about what the people expected to lead this change wanted; to feel included, incentivised, able to quite literally live the brand by playing a game of basketball in their downtime! Seems extreme, but many other companies can learn from this approach by Nike – and think about ways to improve the environment for their vital front line.

In the world of customer service there’s a lot of chatter about empowerment and the danger is that it’s seen as just a buzzword rather than an essential component for a culture that supports employees as the serve customers. It’s important to consider the approach to the front line teams – are they engaged, productive, and trusting of the customer handling protocols? If the answer is no, change this immediately. And if the answer is yes, just check when was the last time you asked a front line employee for their feedback on how things are going? Not just in a business sense – but on a personal level too. An outstanding customer service employee is a fantastic problem solver, but everyone faces issues from time to time, and if someone is struggling then it can be a barrier to delivery of great service. The front line sees it all, and there must be a business mechanism to tap into their invaluable feedback, and make sure they feel empowered enough to share honest and frank updates. IT firm Wolters Kluwer developed a programme called Converse which offered an internal 360 feedback scheme ahead of the rollout of a product asking for everyone’s thoughts before it launched and engaging everyone by valuing their opinion.

Across the full sweep of companies and roles, internal recognition is chronically undervalued – and a customer service team needs to feel appreciated. Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report showed 77% of respondents rank ‘new rewards’ as important to their workplace wellbeing – favouring personalised rewards systems. It is so important to invest in what might contribute to wellbeing for people in this specific role, and this varies between each company’s unique employee culture and identity.

Monzo, the British digital-only bank which has just launched in the US, recognises that some employees may have private struggles that impact performance, and recently introduced Spill into the workplace – an app that splits costs of message-based counselling 50/50 between employers and employees. While some people may not see this as a ‘reward’, private counselling can be prohibitively expensive for some, and it’s an excellent example of an online-only company understanding its employees’ preferred way of communicating. Monzo’s response to combat staff stress in an organisation that provides 24-7 customer support complements their working style, and alleviates financial pressure for anyone who may need extra support for their mental health.

Wellbeing is the workplace word du jour – but it’s so important to think beyond surface schemes like free fruit and think about what matters. Whether that’s an exhilarating office environment, like Nike’s customer service team, or a way to recognise the essential feedback from the frontline, the common denominator must be: will this increase the genuine wellbeing of the people speaking to customers all day, every day? Companies that take heed of this will be rewarded exponentially by a team that feels not only empowered to represent you day-in, day-out to customers, but also feels free to share honest, commercially impactful feedback on what is and isn’t working – which will ultimately benefit your business.