Customer Service Roles: The New Frontier for the Over 60s?

Aged 60+?

Coming to the end of a long and rewarding career and getting ready to potter around the garden and finally read those books you have been meaning to get around to?

Don’t!  New psychological research from the University of California, Berkeley suggests that you might be coming into your element as a potential customer service representative. 

Ok, it’s fair to say that the research doesn’t make any specific job suggestions for you, and there are probably a host of roles which the research might indicate increased success in for the over 60s.  However, what Robert Levenson’s research does suggest is that, as we get older, our emotional intelligence improves and that it reaches its peak as we go through our sixties.

Specifically, our capacity to empathise with others and appreciate their sadness or disappointment is heightened in comparison with younger people.

In addition, older people are better able to see the positive side of a negative situation, even if that situation is palpably grim.

Levenson argues that we become more suited to social and compassionate activities as we age and that the changes in our nervous systems which bring about these emotional intelligence changes are likely to give us an advantage in the workplace in those tasks involving social relationships and caring for others.

It’s probably obvious by now why this might be important news for customer service organisations: feeling and expressing empathy and being able to see positive aspects in all situations are invaluable traits in customer service representatives.  Yet the age profile of front-line customer service representatives in most sectors is way below this 60+ demographic.

We know that the customer relationship and getting closer to customers is going to become even more important to organisational success in the future.  “People to people” will be the way that organisations secure competitive advantage in over-crowded marketplaces.

Organisations of people who approach customers as individuals with valid feelings and experiences to share are going to be in the forefront of innovation and performance in customer care.  

Who better then to be the face of the organisation than someone who finds it easier to understand and empathise with a customer’s perspective and who is also adept at coping with, and being resilient to, negative situations through focusing on the positive.

Come in, the over 60’s!

Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that an organisation selects its people specifically using age as a criterion.  But in a world where customer service is generally seen as a younger person’s game, some positive action to attract older people to the role, and emphasise the value of their particular emotional intelligence strengths would be highly desirable.   

With the glowing exceptions of a few firms such as B&Q and Domestic and General Group (D&G), UK customer service organisations in general do not seem to have grasped this fact. 

Call centres are predominantly staffed by younger people and, unsurprisingly, historical employment legislation has meant that in the UK employers have had the right to terminate or refuse employment, just as people are getting into their emotional intelligence stride. 

Often, customer service employers over-value energy and speed of response/learning, both of which may be more present in the average 20 year old than 60 year old (though we all know there are many, many exceptions to the rule). 

Important as these qualities are, when developing and nurturing a relationship with another person, especially one who may be experiencing problems or who explicitly needs your help, empathy and seeing the positive are likely to be much more influential.

Tracy Burrell, HR Manager at D&G’s Nottingham call centre recognises this strength in their staff, following a campaign to recruit more older people.  She says “We find that our mature workers have much more empathy with our customers. They understand the issues that the person at the other end of the telephone is having.”

Although many have suspected that encouraging more older people to take up customer service roles would improve the quality of service provision, Levenson’s research sheds light on some of the psychological mechanisms which underlie the changes in approach that are often ascribed broadly to greater life experience.

These are welcome findings for everyone. 

Organisations can use the findings to change recruitment strategy with the result that their customer service workforce will be better able to develop and sustain those all-important customer relationships.

Older people will be able to have confidence that increasing age has brought about improvements in skills and employability, just at a time when conventional thinking is that skills are starting to decline and job performance to deteriorate.

And customers will find that there is more chance of talking to someone with the psychological capabilities to make the interaction a pleasure rather than a pain.


Levenson Robert W, University of California – Berkeley, Media Relations Dec 16 2010


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