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

Eyes on HP

Hewlett-Packard is not just any company. It is iconic. Like Disney, Ford, General Electric, Apple, Microsoft, and a few others, it is not only part of business history, it is deeply wound into the fabric of American history. Modern Silicon Valley pretty much begins with Hewlett-Packard—the foundations of information technology as a new sector of productivity, the power of innovation, the hardware/software product life-cycle, the beginnings of west coast venture capital, and the splitting atom of employees spinning off from the mothership to become founders themselves. The Hewlett-Packard story until recently is a magnificent tale.

HP WayBill Hewlett and Dave Packard really did start in a garage. One of the very first products they sold was a precision audio oscillator, to of all people, Walt Disney. They captured their thoughts in a book, The HP Way, reinforcing the need for a company to have a mission and a vision. When we talk about a job being more than a paycheck, a lot of that comes from the work ethic and values of Hewlett and Packard. They set the stage for a generation of entrepreneurs. They made it okay to fail, as long as that failure contained learning that was honestly disseminated. HP on an engineer’s resume was gold. The sales and marketing team was second to none.

It is almost impossible to understand the impact of a global company with over $125B in annual revenue and 325,000 employees changing CEOs four times in six years, not including the interim CEOs between hires. Carly Fiorina, Mark Hurd, and Leo Apotheker each left the company for different reasons, and while the HP board is now taking a lot of heat for perhaps not scrutinizing their decisions around these leaders carefully enough, that is unfortunately water under the bridge. The company is now under the direction of former eBay CEO and recent California Gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman, who will need to move quickly and definitively to steady the ship.

HP has seen numerous mergers, divestitures, and acquisitions throughout this period of seismic change, and each time one strategy replaces a previous version, the impact is costly. Whitman has said she believes the strategy in place at HP now is largely correct, so if the issues she is facing are managerial, perhaps we will see a positive impact sooner rather than later. My guess is she will dig into strategy a bit more in the coming months, and then move aggressively to make her mark. The sooner she can restore confidence with customers, employees, and shareholders, the better it will be for all those who do care deeply about the company’s future.

Why is HP so important in the scope of business enterprise? When you dig into exceptional business books like Built to Last and Good to Great, both by Jim Collins, you realize just how hard it is for even the strongest corporations to go the distance in an environment of creative destruction. As Collins points out so often in the data he cites, only 62 of the original Fortune 500 companies named on the original list in 1955 remain there in 2011.

The great former CEO of Intel, Andy Grove, talks at length about the “strategic inflection points” facing companies at every stage of their evolution—particularly technology companies—in his critical study Only the Paranoid Survive. Grove makes it all too clear how easy it is for a well established organization with vast resources and expansive markets to miss a fundamental change in the continuum of progress, only to catch its error to late to be fixed, having been lapped by any number of competitors.

Where Collins approaches the challenge largely from the aspect of defining and reinforcing a brand, Grove looks at it from the point of view of ceaseless innovation and refusal to accept the status quo as satisfying. Both approaches are vital, but neither has a chance in the face of organizational chaos. Products, features, and benefits must remain in constant flux, but ideals and values are their balancing counterparts. Remove the rudder from a very fast ship and it really doesn’t much matter what is powering the engine room.

It takes both leadership and strategy to steer one of these mammoth ships through the rough seas of business change, and simply taking those notions for granted is the easiest way for a company to fall from grace. Robert Burgelman, a colleague of Andy Grove who teaches strategy at the Stanford Graduate School of Business (and is also a former board member of mine), tells us that strategy becomes real when we apply resources to concepts. We see that very much in action now at HP, but we see those resource decisions changing too frequently in real-time. The leadership of the CEO drives that strategy from concept to action, from white board idea to investment cost center, and if strategic shifts are reversed before cost centers become profit centers, value can be destroyed at an astonishing pace.

No CEO or strategy is meant to last forever, but change them too often, and costs pile up without reward. The toll on staff morale is immeasurable, and the lost jobs from reversing decisions may never be recovered. Employees feel the impact in loss of income, shareholders get pummeled. Customers just move on.

It’s time now for HP to turn the corner. As I said, HP is iconic, it is Silicon Valley. We need it as an example in the tech sector of a company that is Built to Last and can continue to grow from Good to Great. HP dates to 1939. It is the standard-bearer for all the great companies that followed its mantra, were born in garages, and now have office space in the adjacent neighborhoods. If we want to believe companies like AOL and Yahoo can find new creative life through reinvention, we have to have models for long-term success. We need succession plans that show great companies can transcend their founders and achieve new levels of success by ensuring that values are more than words in the employee handbook, and that they are liberating, not confining, as long as the leaders who embrace them help guide their teams through increased commitment to innovation with coherent planning and rigorous evaluation. No shooting from the hip, but no fear of change.

On a pragmatic level, we also need the jobs, particularly in HP’s home state of California. Surely the majority of new jobs in our nation will come from small business and startups, but we can’t afford to lose the ones we have in the enterprise, not for the families who depend on them, not for the state budget that needs the payroll tax. Because of its deep history in the community and legend, HP leads the ethos in Silicon Valley in so many ways, its stability is a reflection of hope, its instability a drag on the headlines when we need a shot of optimism.

This is a once in a lifetime career and company defining opportunity for the new CEO at HP. It’s like getting the chance to manage the NY Yankees after three bad seasons no one saw coming. They might be on a losing streak, they might have made a bunch of bad trades, but they’re still the Yankees. Everyone knows they can win, that they have the resources to win and a history of winning. Meg Whitman just needs to ask herself, what kind of game does she want her team playing, who does she want in the line-up, and where does she need to better read the competitive landscape. A little consistency in management will go a long way.

Let’s hope Hewlett-Packard has it right this time. There is already new criticism of HP’s board that they acted too quickly in hiring Meg Whitman, that she should have first been named interim CEO, or that her background is not right for the job. Their decision has been made, so I am rooting for the new CEO. This isn’t politics, this is P&L. It is critical that Meg gets this right and succeeds. A win for her in this role is a win for all of us.