So, You Think You Want to Do Customer Service

hqdefaultNow that I’ve gotten to where I am, a lot of people come to me and ask for advice, and the most common question is, “What steps should I take to be a successful customer service agent?” And the first thing I do is ask them back, do you mean someone who likes to do a little customer service on the side once in a while? Or do you mean a real, full-time, support-yourself type of customer service agent? Because there’s nothing wrong with the former. A lot of people enjoy it as a hobby. They get an outlet for serving customers once in a while and that’s great. That’s great.

But if the person wants to pursue customer service with real earnest intent, the conversation gets more serious. “You have to really want it,” I tell them. Of course they all say they do, that they really want it.

There’s a difference, I find, between people who are really cut out for life as a customer service agent and those who will be dilettantes forever. The real customer service agents out there…you can always tell who they are, because they absolutely have do it. They’re driven by this deep, unaccountable need. In some sense they’re unable to do anything else. If there aren’t customers around, they’ll talk to their cat, or the wall, and ask them to confirm their address or the last four digits of their Social Security number.

JerrySeinfeldReservationAnother question I get is, “how do I get started?” News flash! You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission. You give yourself permission. There’s a customer service agent inside you waiting to talk to customers right now, and if you don’t listen to that voice, that urgent voice inside of you–the voice that, when you’re sitting on the bus next to a sad-looking man, wants to ask him if he’s tried turning his cable box off and then turning it back on again–then how are you going to live with yourself? What are you going to tell your grandkids about your life?

Next question. “What school should I go to? What classes should I take?” These often seem like tough decisions at first. There’s all these new exciting fields being developed–customer service for children, customer service for robots–and teaching them all is a whole industry these days. There’s an old joke that says you can make more money teaching customer service than you can actually doing customer service. Not that there’s anything wrong with teaching, of course. Teaching is great. It’s really great.

I do caution against specializing too early, though, before you’ve found where you really sit with your calling. Try sticking to the basics instead. Customer service is best approached with the kind of informed, yet open mind that only the traditional liberal education can develop. At first, everyone wonders why they need to know about Chaucer to do customer service. Then, years later, when they’re in the thick of a long, complex customer service call, it all comes back, and they understand why they learned it. Why it was so important.

imagesThen there are the workshops, like the famous El Segundo Customer Service Workshop. Every so often a debate flares up about them: “They’re just training all of our customer service agents to talk alike!” the critics will say. I understand where the concern comes from. We’ve all experienced those overly workshopped calls, where you can tell the agent has hemmed and hawed for a long time over the best way to pronounce “BankAmericard®” while failing utterly to capture any sort of fundamental truth of the human condition. Still, I would say there is value to the workshop experience in the sense that it forces the developing customer service agent to come to terms with their own voice. Too many young people are in love with themselves, in love with the sound of their own voice, and the workshop is where they can hear it played back to them– literally, like recorded and then played back. Isn’t that always a trip, how different your voice sound recorded?

Anyway, you can’t expect the workshops to give you some magic formula or trick. There’s no shortcut for greatness. So when someone tells me they’ve been working hard but are still struggling to achieve their dream of becoming a customer serviceagent, I say to them, when’s the last time you upsold someone on overdraft protection for their checking account? Last week? Last month? Are you servicing customers right now? No? Well, why not? Don’t even answer that question. You’ve got to stop… making… excuses. Get over yourself and just do it. Serve customers every day, serve customers on good days, on bad days, even if you can only answer forty or fifty calls. That’s still something. No customers around? No telephone? Answer calls in your head. If you’ve read my autobiography, you’ll remember that’s how I got started, rocking myself to sleep whispering “before we begin, I’d like to remind you that the call may be recorded for quality purposes,” over and over. Just do that and guess what? Before you know it, you are a real customer service agent. The trappings of the position that everyone loves to fetishize–the headset, the keycard dangling from a lanyard–those come naturally later. Don’t worry about them for now. Just focus on doing good work and those things will come. Trust me on this.

We’re getting to the end, here, so I’ll really level with you all. There’s so much talk about the right way to do customer service, the best way to do it… how all the famous people do it. So many theories and, frankly, bullshit flying around.

But the truth is, in the end it will always come down to just three things: you, the customer, and the service.

Later on you’ll gain the accolades and the awards, and those are nice, but they’re nothing special. Nah. They’re nothing compared to the real rewards: self-knowledge, wisdom, and above all, the journey. The journey of the customer service agent.

And that– that is the journey I now wish upon all of you.
Thank you.
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