The Call Center Launch Pad

All call centers are not equal.

I’m not just talking about the quality of customer service. I’m talking about the opportunity a company’s customer service department offers to its employees.

Sure, some call center gigs are dead-end jobs. Let me give you an example of what happens when the people who work in customer service know they are an afterthought to brand loyalty.

I recently had one of the worst experiences ever with a brand I have loved for decades. That brand is Hewlett-Packard, once arguably the single most shining icon in all of Silicon Valley history. The second HP printer I had purchased in three years died. Although I suspected HP had devolved into more of a subscription ink factory than a technology innovator, I bought the second printer with a two-year warranty to make sure it lasted two years. It did not.

When I called for support, I was handed off dozens of times from one failed interaction to another. Their technical training was all over the map, but no one could solve my problem. They put me on hold without setting time parameters. They dropped calls and didn’t call me back as promised. I invested hours in this runaround until my wife asked me what I thought my time might be worth to continue being poorly treated.

My case was escalated with the eventual offer of a “refurbished” printer because they did not have a record of my two-year warranty, even though I sent them documentation supporting their brand promise. The escalation manager had a broken headset and couldn’t complete our phone call, thus redirecting our negotiation to email spread over days. Finally I gave up and now own a competitor’s branded printer. I will never again own an HP printer. The HP Way is no more. That is a customer tragedy.

This got me thinking about all the product managers, software engineers, and information technology professionals I have hired or promoted out of customer service over the years. I don’t think of customer service as a cost center; I think of it as a profit center. Customer service is a place we invest in our brand and invest in our people. When we do that, our customers benefit and our employees benefit. That is the definition of a win-win.

If you are reading this today in an executive marketing role, ask yourself how you categorize the expense of customer service. Is it a necessary evil where unappreciated, low-paid people might be severing ties with your customers? Or is it a gateway for talent to join your company where well-trained people do their best to bond customers for life and in doing so ready themselves for significantly greater career opportunities within your enterprise?

For those of you currently in a customer service job, the question you might ask yourself is how you can transform your current day-to-day, sometimes thankless complaint handling into a launch pad that puts you on a path to be considered for your boss’s job and later your boss’s boss’s job. It happens, I promise you, but only if you position yourself to make it happen. Here’s a simple framework.

Choose Wisely

Look for an emerging company where promotions are frequent rather than a legacy behemoth where you’ll never got out of the boiler room. Don’t envision the call center where you work as a windowless dungeon, even if you are working at home, but instead see yourself in a trend-setting pool hall where you are setting up your next shot. If you are so remote and isolated from corporate management that no one who can promote you will ever know who you are, then you probably are in an inescapable place. Since you’ve chosen to do the work, do it somewhere where you will be noticed and appreciated.

Learn Every Day

The work you do today answering emails, chatting, or talking to customers on the phone is just that—it doesn’t have to be the work you do forever. Ask yourself: What did you learn from your last customer interaction? What did you learn about the product technology when you searched the database to address a customer’s problem? What insights about the next-generation product features have you gleaned from the thrashings you endure listening to the gripes of unhappy customers? One of these days you are going to bump into a company leader in the hallway who might ask for your opinion on something. Do you have an opinion that is built on valuable learnings that make you unquestionably promotable when that opportunity surprisingly emerges?

Do More Than You’re Asked

You were hired to do a job the person to the left of you and the right of you can do. If you do just that job, you will get paid as promised, rinse and repeat. If you want to do more, ask to do more. Volunteer for special projects. Don’t wait to be asked. Show initiative. Go to your manager and say you’d like to write a white paper on why returns are so high on a current product in market. Maybe your manager says yes, maybe no. If they say no too many times, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. I tell every manager wanting to be a director and every director wanting to be a VP the same thing: Find a way to start doing the job you want before you have it. Those are the kinds of people companies want to retain. A customer service associate who knows things becomes a company leader who can fix things. Claim your own success.

Gut It Out

When your boss is unhappy with your performance, don’t quit on the spot because your feelings are hurt. Find out why your boss is displeased. If you ask and get a candid answer, listen to the critique calmly and internalize it. If you don’t get an honest answer, see the section above labeled Choose Wisely. If your boss suggests you are dialing it in and not living up to your potential, maybe this is a wildly constructive moment. Accept the feedback, up your game, and try even harder to do the best job you can. Leaders in companies do not give up because they have a bad week, a bad day, a bad hour, or a bad customer interaction. If you can hang tough in customer service, you have a shot at hanging tough when you are promoted. Grit matters, not just because of what it teaches you about resilience, but because of what it says about your commitment to exceeding expectations.

Love your brand, love your customers, love the opportunity hiding behind the door that is not yet open, and when you nudge that door open, your entire life might change in an instant. How sure am I? I’ve seen it happen hundreds of times. I’ve also seen too many times what happens when a company doesn’t get this right and spirals into oblivion. Taking your customers for granted as you grow is a clear path to the dead brand graveyard. A culture of aligned incentives that secures customer engagement is the rocket fuel that resists inertia.

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Photo: Pixabay

Rediscovering Civility

Last month I wrote briefly about the fallacy of the upper hand. The responses I received from people navigating similar bouts of forced will remind me how not normal our lives remain. Over the past year and a half, many employees have learned to work remotely, and to some the routine of working from home is now its own form of normalcy. At the same time, we are increasingly returning to the workplace and trying to adjust to the structure of sharing a space with colleagues and strangers for a third of each day.

To assume everyone can walk back into the workplace and public spaces without some enhanced focus on conduct seems to me naïve. Human beings are certainly adaptable, but I worry that we might be presuming a level of adaptability that confuses the comfort zone of individuals with the smooth functioning of collective interests. You’ve no doubt heard about the outbreaks of passenger rage on commercial flights. They are not as isolated as we might want to believe.

Covid-19 has taken away a lot of daily practice from our interactions. It’s not just that it is easy to forget how different it is to interact in person than it is to communicate through electronic platforms. Talking into screens is not a fully rendered substitute for being together. We have developed habits in our physical solitude that have taught us to be effective in doing what is expected of us, but some of those habits may not make the most of opportunities to emerge with a broader purpose. We may find it easier to behave in certain ways when we are alone than when we are together, and bridging those geographies may not be as simple as flexible switching between environments in what many now label as hybrid work.

There is more to the next generation workplace than where we do what we do. There is a mindset I think we need to share—a set of shared values—that seems to me more traditional than circumstantial. If we want to adapt to new paradigms for interacting, perhaps the rules governing those interactions are agnostic to place. It seems critical with the perpetual noise around us that as we adjust to the new back-to-work standards we insist on a standard of decency in our endeavors.

In recommitting to an extraordinary standard of civility, here are four simple pillars I would expect of myself and others.

Tell the Truth

When I say tell the truth, I mean all the time. It’s easy to tell the truth when it is what others want to hear and it avoids controversy. It is much harder to tell the truth when we have made a mistake, when data is being manipulated by someone in authority, or when the cost of that truth is one’s own popularity. The problem with honesty is that it can’t be a tool of convenience. We must tell the truth not because there is penalty if we don’t, but because we cannot universally insist on it from others if we don’t stand by the promise that it is inarguable. Understand what is empirical and fully embrace integrity. Silence when the truth is known is not a noble dodge, it is another form of mistruth.

Your Name Belongs to You

Unless one’s life is at risk for civil rights abuses, most of what people author anonymously is cowardly. We can argue the difference between old media and new media is the presence of an editor creating an artificial funnel on access to audience, but one of those old school norms was the expectation in authorship of identity. We should write with a by-line, with our name associated with our thoughts, and with our style of verbal and written communication enhanced by our ownership of that expression. You have only one good name. Protect it through accuracy, clarity, absence of pointless invective, and even if eloquence is beyond reach, at least frame the deliberate use of language in a context that is purposeful.

Manners Matter

We can stand on our authority, or we can strive to get people on our side. It has never been clearer to me that style is content, that the outcome we are trying to achieve is inextricably linked to the form of our argument. Approach those around you with respect and there is a much higher chance they might be interested in the thought behind the point you are making rather than just the interpretation of their role in the outcome. Avoid the opportunity to build consensus at your own peril, but even when you must deliver the top-down tiebreaker, do it with finesse, restricting the hammer to the impossible sell. The Golden Rule survives the centuries because some ideals do make sense even when we fail ceaselessly to take them seriously. Hear the words you are saying. Would they get you encouraged, inspired, and onboard?

Think Long

Survivors know that careers can last or not. The yes you got today—the yes that was so important you worked tirelessly for months to hear—is as fleeting as any other decision in the moment. Short-term action without a long-term framework is a high-risk gamble. Telling a half-truth might get you to the end of the week. Cleverly masking your name from an unpopular report might get you through the review cycle. Effectively bullying a coworker might swing a lost debate to your advantage. All of those will cost you. Steve Jobs used to talk about brand deposits and brand withdrawals. You need both in balance to build a lasting brand—to establish and reinforce a credible promise. You can’t make deposits and withdrawals at random and go “up and to the right” repeatedly without a plan. The winning strategy when others are winging it is to think long.

Welcome to the new world. Sounds a lot like the old world, only with less commuting. Count me in.

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Photo: Pixabay

The Upper Hand

Think you’ve got leverage? You might. Now think hard about whether you want to exert it.

The success of a business reveals itself over long periods of time. The same is true of a career, even more so.

At any given time, circumstances may go your way. Cheesy television shows that gloss over the true workings of business may suggest this is the time to seize control of a weakened opponent, play the hard angle of opportunism, lower the boom on the boomless.

Certainly that’s one way to play the game.

You’re a property owner and the market is tight. You can play hardball with potential tenants. Maybe that works and they sign the lease without much choice.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a well-educated graduate entering the job market where positions that capitalize on your skillset are abundant. You are offered a very fair salary at an employer where you can grow, learn, and evolve your talent. You ask for 50% more. Maybe they say yes because they have a job that needs to be done right now.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

You’re a broker of commodity supplies suddenly in demand for construction or renovation. Longtime customers ask for your support in quickly completing a needed project without breaking the budget. You tell them you’d like to help, but new customers are willing to pay three to four times what you’ve been paying for the same materials you have stockpiled in inventory. Maybe you get the new asking price from your original customer and your margin soars.

Are you 100% sure that’s a great idea?

Here’s my take: You’re blowing it.

In all three of the above examples, the true price of hammering home your isolated moment of glory far exceeds the devil’s bargain you might be invoking.

You are sacrificing the establishment of trust.

You are shredding the notion of loyalty.

You are establishing a set of ground rules where the nanosecond leverage shifts, you are going to get swatted with a mirror version of the upper hand you thought was so nifty.

Think I’m wrong? Think business is just a cycle of gamesmanship where everyone longs for effective application of the upper hand? If that’s you, I am sure you are confident in your convictions. Relish the spoils of your conquest, but do us both a favor: Seek others who are like you and leave the rest of us to apply a much longer view.

Deals are short. They come and go. Want to win every single dispute, argument, and arcane point of negotiation? Try to build a brand, reputation, or legacy on that.

One day you will lose the upper hand because no one has it forever. When that day comes, you will get what you get. You put it in motion, you own it.

Am I suggesting that you should rollover and take less than you are due in any meaningful negotiation simply to be nice? No, that’s not the takeaway. Always figure out what you need, convince yourself through the other side’s eyes that your position is reasonable, and then fight for it with cordial determination. At the same time, consider the possibility that the few pennies you may choose to leave on the table today might be a stealth investment in a future windfall you can’t yet see, but might have the foresight to envision.

Being clever is seldom obvious. There are too many other clever people always around you. Being consistent in your values with an obsession for integrity is way more valuable and easier to benchmark.

Wise investors know that equities trade in cycles over decades with an upward trajectory. Timing the market is a fool’s game. You play long. Same with customers, same with brands, same with careers.

Seriously, why?

Because in the next down cycle, you are going to need help. You are going to need to pick up the phone and humble yourself. The question is, will someone answer?

I often say that one of the few good things about getting older is that you’ve accumulated the experience to navigate events with a framework for predicting a myriad of outcomes. Challenges are both temporal and lasting. Knowing the difference provides you with context for better decision-making.

As I also often say, the great tragedy of too many careers is that the learning you wish you had in your earlier years doesn’t come until much too late, and then you’re out of time.

Get ahead of the pack. This won’t be the last boom. A bust is coming. No one knows when, only that it absolutely will happen.

Then another boom and another bust. Rinse and repeat. Those are variables. The constant is you.

Play the long game. Build your network with reciprocal give-and-take. Be the kind of person in business people want to call all the time, not just when either one of you has a temporary advantage. The inspired upper hand is less about brute force, more about wisdom.

I’m 100% sure that’s a great idea.

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Photo: Pexels

A Childhood Friend Passes

I said a final goodbye to a longtime friend recently. He was intensely private and not at all a fan of social media so I won’t name him here. I do feel the need to write about him, so I hope I am in-bounds handling this in the abstract.

We actually lost him during Covid, but the logistics of his memorial had to wait for travel arrangements. He wasn’t a Covid victim, perhaps just the timing. He had other medical issues that lasted all his life. I have known this person since we were 11 years old, which I believe makes him the longest-standing friend I have maintained. I didn’t do a great job of maintaining that friendship, but luckily I did visit with him right before Covid. He gave me a reasonably rebellious book right in line with his lifelong wit and irritation with the unreasonable. I gave him a copy of my last book. We never got to discuss either.

The medical condition that haunted him dates back to our earliest conversations. He never wanted anyone to feel sorry for him, but if you were in his circle, he wasn’t afraid to talk about it. It was a neuromuscular disease and although his entire life would be linked by operations and treatments, he refused to let his life be defined by it. It was existential. He understood existential.

Several years ago I wrote a tribute to Jerry Lewis when he died. I had been involved as a supporter and volunteer of the Muscular Dystrophy Association since childhood and strangely always felt a connection to Jerry. I remember discussing this with my friend in childhood. He had a mixed reaction to MDA. He appreciated all the donations that Jerry inspired to invest in research, but he was troubled by all the photoshoots and poster children. This friend was sufficiently progressive but never woke. When I wrote my piece on Jerry he wrote to me after a very long stretch of absence, almost out of the blue, a brief email to me that began:

“So I don’t get a mention in the Jerry Lewis post? I cried when he died. Loved him as a funny man.”

He then went on to blast MDA, a very harsh critique. You see, this friend understood the nature of a mixed bag. He could see light and dark in the same moment. Dark was really dark but light was talent, accomplishment, connection, selfless commitment.

Yes, a mixed bag. Aren’t we all? Particularly a half-century past the day we meet a childhood friend.

There were phases to our friendship following our seven years together leading to high school graduation. When I arrived in Los Angeles, I had nowhere to live, no money, no job. Just a college degree and hope. My friend was still in college here and welcomed me to sleep on his sofa until I could establish credit and find a place (it was actually his sister’s apartment, although he deftly negotiated my path in the door). I used to comb through the L.A. Times each day looking for apartment rentals and employment. Soon enough those came together and I moved on. I don’t forget that sofa. It was a symbol of friendship. I drive by that apartment every once in a while. Yes, the proverbial launchpad.

Years later when I was immersed in a writing assignment and seeking his feedback, he told me that someday he might want to write a movie or book. He wasn’t completely sure what he wanted to write about, but he told me with certainty he knew what the last line would be: “Let’s go home.”

There is a lot of resonance in those three words. Home for him was not specifically a place or even a metaphor. It is an idea, an aspiration, a Platonic Form.

He enjoyed a celebrated career in architecture and co-founded his own firm. He was a master of sculpture and ceramic design. He cherished historic structures and the learning to be found in the history of art. The notion of home was alive and well in all his aesthetic constructs. He clearly saw the natural extension of people into the curious things they chose to build, not always successfully, but hopefully with conviction.

Sometimes when I am getting to know someone, I ask them what three words they would most hope someone else would use to describe them. I never asked this friend that question because when your connection reaches back to childhood, you have a lot of time to think about it.

He was resilient. He was uncompromising. He was nuanced.

Resilient—because no matter the physical or character challenge he faced, he never backed away from it, never let it be an excuse or obstacle, never complained that he wasn’t dealt a fair hand, never asked for a different set of rules.

Uncompromising—because if you were wrong, he would tell you so, and even when you argued coherently that you weren’t wrong, he’d explain what you were missing in your evaluation and help you see why a counterintuitive approach might create a bridge to his logic.

Nuanced—because he knew wherever light entered a prism, its refraction could not be contained, mixing light and darkness in most forms of thought, the beautiful and the sublime in most expressions of art, good and not-so-good outcomes in too many of our intentions, however noble our purpose.

Our touchpoints form a pastiche of separately evolving but forever interconnected lives. A love of the water, whether on the natural coastline, an inelegant water skiing loop, or a boat shared with friends at sea. Political fairness and equal justice in limitless dialogue. The intersection of historical philosophy and pragmatic psychology. A belief that the courage to choose honest words matters more than our ability to perfectly craft them under pressure. An ardent shared defense of Bachman-Turner Overdrive. These are bonds time cannot undermine.

Lives together and apart twist and weave. Our relationships with each other are fluid. We don’t realize that when we come together and separate, but it is the course of things.

This particular friend’s family had a vast impact on me. Counsel from his father set my life on a course that has let me be who I am today. I wouldn’t be the same otherwise. It’s not just your friends who transform you. It is their circles and the circles you cannot imagine are forming in the background of your journey. When you look back, it is all so clear. At the time, it seems like just hanging out.

Sometimes I think there is no such thing as just hanging out. Everything can be consequential. You don’t know that at the time. That’s the scary part. We’d best pay closer attention all the time.

There are few realities more absolute than mortality. It is the universal link that humbles us all. It translates directly to the impermanence of our time together. That can be hours, days, years, decades, or most of a lifetime. We seldom understand it that way, because time does not reveal itself that way. The passing of time is certain, but not our shared intervals.

When we lose someone, we are reminded both of our own insignificance in the continuum of earthly events and our enormous significance in the impact lives can have on each other. I am thinking about that now in the span of a half-century, about what I did right and wrong in this friendship, what I could have done better, and how I am changed and shaped by this remarkable individual’s authenticity.

He left us with the perfect ending.

Let’s go home.

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Photo: Pexels