When you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, you get a lot of responses. You will hear teacher, police officer, firefighter, soldier, secret agent, spy, football player, chef, soccer player, swimmer and on and on and on. Some things you never hear though are accountant, tax lawyer, bank teller, and never ever, customer service representative.
Face it, some jobs just aren’t glamorous. There are no, or at least not any I know of, romantic tales about accounting, tax law, or working in a bank. Sorry, but there’s just not much romance or excitement there, certainly not enough for a child. And then there’s customer service. This is an area your child probably doesn’t even know exists. And if they do, it’s most likely not a job that their parents are suggesting as a career.
Now, why is it that customer service is not something we hope our children will get into? Maybe it’s because of the stories we tell ourselves, customer service is entry level, customer service is something people do on their way to a ‘real job,’ customer service is something people do when they can’t do anything else, and on and on it goes.
We’ve also made customer service roles miserable. Rather than being a meaningful job where people help others get problems solved and put a human face on the often harsh realities of business, it has become a depressing, anxiety ridden role where goals are set around numbers of tickets closed and minimum times for contact. Customer service has become a factory where representatives are welding figurative rivets on a problem resolution assembly line. Who in their right mind wants to do this? Certainly no kid with dreams of exciting and meaningful life work.
But it doesn’t have to be this way and certainly shouldn’t be this way. Service is one of the noblest pursuits we humans undertake. Helping each other—this is what service is by the way—is one of the most necessary things for our survival and is hard wired into us. Mother Nature, knowing we aren’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest, has given us a chemical push to work together. By endowing us with the hormone oxytocin, she has made it clear how we should operate. When we help each other, everyone involved gets a little hit of feel-good oxytocin and is thus inspired to help even more. This is how we grow our networks and communities. Helping is key to our success, yet we see service as something undesirable.
Throughout history, serving has been marginalized because it is typically confused with servitude. You see, servitude connotes being subject to someone and providing for their every whim, whereas serving, in contrast, is about being of use and providing value. Servitude makes the server a menial laborer with no voice or opinion who simply does the controller’s bidding, whereas serving makes the server a contributor who brings knowledge, expertise, and skill.
Ironically, despite this confusion and the relegation of service to second-class status, we all do it, every day, all day, from sun up to sun down. When you get your kids up in the morning for school, service. When you make everyone breakfast, service. When you let that car in on the freeway, service. When you review that report for a co-worker that needed a proofreader, service. When you pick up milk on the way home, service. Being of service is part and parcel of who and what we are as humans. And, it is a noble thing. Imagine where we would be as a species without helping each other. In my mind’s eye, we would most likely still be working out the wheel and fire if indeed we had survived at all.
So, what are some changes we can make?
One, we can get rid of one of the most misleading things in business, the Customer Service Department. What?!? I know, why? Why would we want to do that? Well, by making service a department it sends a message that only certain people do it—something that is decidedly not true, or at least it shouldn’t be true. I often laugh when I walk into a store and see a counter with a big sign that says Customer Service. It makes me want to get a bullhorn and ring out, “Calling all employees here, what is it you people do if this counter is where customers get service?” You see, everyone in your workplace should be customer service, or at least they should think of their job as being part of a chain of delivering value and help to customers. How about making your service department the problem resolution department or the return and repair department or the owner support department? This specifies what value they bring and allows you to make it clear that your entire business is service and everyone is responsible for customer success.
Two, get rid of time limits on calls and goals on the number of tickets processed. Again, why? I want you to imagine you are a soldier wounded on a battlefield. You are in pain and terrified. Along comes a medic who bandages your wounds and gives you something for the pain but quickly scampers away leaving you again alone on the battlefield. Let that sink in. Now rewind and imagine the same scenario with a different medic. This medic bandages your wounds much like the other one, but, in contrast, they stay with you and make you feel safe.
Which medic would you rather have? Wouldn’t you rather be with the one who not only solved your problem but took the time and effort to support you as a person? Of course you would, so why do we turn our support centers into bastions of medic #1? Why do we leave our wounded customers out on the battlefield scared and alone by strangling those meant to support them with time goals and quotas on numbers of soldiers bandaged? Our customers are people and people need relational attention as much as, or many times more than, technical attention.
Three, review the language you use in your workplace. What words do you use when you talk about customers? If they are called leads, accounts, targets, tickets, or anything else that dehumanizes them, change it immediately. Customers are people, and whenever we dehumanize them, it makes doing things that might not be in their best interests easier. The hideous dictator and killer of millions, Joseph Stalin, is purported to have said, “The death of one man is a tragedy while the death of millions is a statistic.” More simply put, when you never see those you hurt, it makes the hurting easier. Ensure you always put a human face on customers so their wellbeing never comes into question.
Four, raise up the service role. Just about every big company I have been involved with holds a major sales meeting every year where they celebrate sales success, provide training, and strategize for the future, yet no company does the same for service. Why? Serving customers is possibly the most critical thing any company does yet they pay it no respect or only little respect at best. Why not hold a service summit every year? I have been privileged to have had some managers to buy in to this idea and run a few of them. And the results? Great success. The service and customer satisfaction scores have grown year over year in every case, and the team members have become more engaged and taken more pride in their work.
These are just four things that can be done to elevate service as a noble endeavor and one where maybe one day some child might just say, “When I grow up, I want to help people as a customer service representative.”
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