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

Customer Disservice

Why do companies with big brands and tremendous momentum go out of business? One reason often discussed here is lack of innovation, which is often opaque, quite difficult to grasp when it is happening because you are in the midst of it, even enjoying a final gasp of success. Another is much easier to understand and very definitely within control—when you stop loving your customers.

Here is a summary of a recent actual customer service call with a well-known company in which I was the very real customer.

ME: But the replacement knob you sent me does not fit the appliance.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: It’s the one you ordered.

ME: No, not exactly, I called and gave you the model number of the appliance and told you which knob was broken, and this is the one you sent me.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Well, it should fit. Did you push hard on it?

ME: It does not fit, so pushing harder will only break it.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Maybe you don’t know how to install it. Would you like us to send out a technician? I need to advise you we bill on site service visits at a minimum $95 per hour.

ME: I don’t need a technician. It’s a $4.75 plastic replacement knob to turn the appliance on and off. It does not fit on the metal stem.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Sir, if you don’t want me to schedule a technician to come to your home, there is nothing more I can do.

ME: Yes, you could send me the proper replacement part. I actually looked up the appliance online and have the serial number for the part I need. It differs from the one you sent me by two digits.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: That’s not possible, they are all the same. If you are not able to install the one we sent, how do you expect to install another one?

ME: I’ll take my chances that the right part will fit. Can I send this one back and get a replacement please?

CUSTOMER SERVICE: We don’t refund parts you ordered incorrectly that become open stock. You can order another one if you want, but you’re still going to need a technician to install it.

ME: You do understand this is a $4.75 part for an appliance that cost more than $1000. How do you expect to stay in business when you treat customers like this?

CUSTOMER SERVICE: Sir, we’ve been here for a hundred years and we’ll be here for a hundred more.

Then he hung up on me. Really. Somewhere there is an actual recording of this call, for training purposes.

Just so the damage is clear, we have a house filled with appliances from this retailer. As these need to be replaced, none will come from that retailer. The next house will also have none. How much did that $4.75 part and the mishandled call cost the seller? The future lifetime value of this customer. I know from having told this story to more than a dozen friends that I am not alone.

One of my very best former senior executives used to start each morning in our customer service department with the kick-off mantra: “Remember, our business would be so much better without all those pesky customers. Never forget that, how happy our days would be without them.”

No Service Is Not ServiceOf course he was kidding, but just saying those words aloud every morning to our trusted heroes on the front lines reminded them how important they were to our success, or how much pain they could cause if they forgot what they were there to do—help keep our customers our customers. We would consider every inbound call a gift, an opportunity to repair any aspect of our relationship that might have been violated. Without our customers, we could not exist, and without the opportunity to hear and fix their problems, we knew we would lose them.

No one in a customer service role likes to get yelled at all day, but what’s the alternative? When the phone stops ringing and the emails stop coming, it is seldom because you are doing everything right. It is usually because the customers have been trained not to contact you or they simply aren’t there anymore. Not exactly a great alternative to customer complaints, is it?

Recovery, or “the art of the save,” is the process by which a negative becomes a positive. Every downside event experienced by a customer offers the single best opportunity you have to show your love. When you empower the people on your front lines to transform any possible negative experience by a customer into an opportunity to bond with them forever, you not only keep their business, you have a shot at recruiting an uncompensated evangelist. Solve a customer’s problem and exceed their expectations, lifetime value continues and they might even go to bat for you with their friends. Ignore or insult them with as many alternatives as there are in the marketplace, the tar pits of antiquity offer your final resting place.

Beating back the challenges of creative destruction is hard enough work. Is being nice to the people who pay your bills really that hard? If it is, get ready to join the march of obscurity and obsolescence. There are so many ways to lose what you’ve built and so few ways to win in the long run. Take heed and don’t lose the game for the things you can control.

Any presumption that a company will last forever defies logic and history. Don’t give your employees reason to think that perpetuity is ordained or soon enough you’ll sink together in the ooze. Love your customers, every single one—those who complain the most are probably the ones who control the keys to your survival.