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4 ways customer support agents can make a career pivot

Recently, while watching old episodes of The Office, I was reminded of the root basis of how people in customer service (or even sales) can bring value to the company by pivoting to different roles. When Jim, a salesperson, moves into a co-manager position, Michael, the branch manager, questions his ability to lead. Jim replies, “Maybe I'm here for a reason, because I might have some good ideas, too. I've been sitting out there, and I've been learning a lot, and maybe I can just bring something different to the table."

That scene brought back memories. I started in the customer service industry while I was still in high school, in the early 2000s. I worked as a customer service rep on the phone, and for retail and food services through high school and then college. I went into these positions thinking customer service was just a stepping stone, or even less—a way to pay the bills until I started my “real career.” Little did I know that I’d always come back to customer service and make it my career.

Times have changed

A lot has changed in the customer service landscape over the past 10 years—even during the last five years. When I started, I took calls in a cold, sterile, gray, call center environment, and we were expected to only answer the phone, and to follow a script and the policies the company had set. Mainly, we were there as a necessary evil. The feeling that we were at the bottom of the totem pole echoed throughout the halls. The extent of our internal communications were fake smiles and small talk from members of other departments in the break room or elevator. Rarely, if ever, were we asked about our ideas for the company—and even when we were, no one listened.

Because of that, a lot of incredibly smart, wonderful people left the company to go start their “real careers” and the company lost those who had the best understanding of its products, infrastructure, and customers.

Then, things started to change. Customers started having a much larger voice through their ability to leave online reviews and post on social media. Suddenly, customer service became a lot more important to companies. It became reputation management, and sales, and when executives asked agents for their ideas, they listened. That’s when I started seeing members of customer service organizations begin to move within the same company rather than moving on to other companies. They took new positions in marketing, operations, human resources, accounting, and on the web team, and they were almost always super successful in their new roles. Companies started using customer service departments as incubation spaces for future leaders.

Customer service became reputation management, and sales, and when executives asked agents for their ideas, they listened.

Because we’re on the frontlines every day, we actually speak to our customers. Other departments have to bucket customers into a demographic and look at the data trends, or sit in a conference room arguing about what they think customers want. In addition to the direct contact, customer service organizations also have a deep understanding of how the business operates, as well as insight into the strengths and flaws of the product(s). A growing number of companies, like Zappos, now require anyone who joins the business to spend time working in customer service.

So, why move?

If customer service is a great place for anyone to start their career or to better understand their business, it doesn’t guarantee a path to another area of the company. But for those who feel drawn to other business units, there are roles that, with some effort, become good fits. To preface, I suggest that anyone spend at least a year working in customer service before moving to another org. You also must spend time studying the new role, whether by taking classes, or doing some shadowing, and then do a really good job of communicating your interest to management, backed by your ability to perform.

The following are four ways I have seen agents successfully make this transition (and, in some cases, have transitioned myself).

1. Move into marketing

Marketing is an invaluable skill, whether for professional or personal promotion, and it’s not a job for robots to handle. It requires a human touch, and since customer service agents talk to customers all day, we learn a lot about who they are and what makes them tick. We hear what they do and don’t like, what made them upset, or purchase, or end their relationship with a business—precisely the things that every company’s marketing department is trying to figure out. But if you are interested in marketing, I suggest you become a student and take classes, read up, and learn as much as you can about the field before making the transition.

If you’re a great customer service agent, chances are your manager isn’t going to want to lose you to another department, so don’t be afraid to start a conversation with people in other departments, especially in marketing. I have seen people talk to their manager for years about their desire to move to another department only to find out later that no one else knew about it. You have to be a bit of a squeaky wheel (but not too much) to get the attention of the leaders in and outside of your organization.

If you’ve first spend time in customer service, you can blow others out of the water with your knowledge of the customer. For example, I worked for two years as a customer service rep for an investment recommendation online newsletter and then transitioned into a marketing coordinator role. My first marketing meeting was stressful; I could tell that others didn’t expect me to be able to add anything to the conversation. The Director started the meeting by talking about how subscriptions were drastically dropping off three months after customers first signed up for the newsletter. The room fell silent as he asked how we could fix this. Some people appeared to be deep in thought, others poured through reports or stared at the wall. Then I cleared my throat to point out what I thought was obvious: “Well… for the first 90 days we send them emails each day about how to set up their brokerage accounts and evaluate stocks, which they love. Then, after that, they just receive our updates and monthly recommendations. Maybe we could extend the welcome email series to be longer or send all customers daily educational tips."

“They like those emails?” the director asked.

“Yes, they tell us all the time how much they love it until they stop receiving them… then they feel like the service is not worth the price.” The company began sending a daily email to all customers after that and the refund rate was cut in half. That was on my first day.

2. Open the door to operations

Customer service, at its core, is part of overall company operations. Agents are using company systems all day, hopping in and out of accounts, making changes, tracking packages, hearing about warehouse picking mistakes, seeing reasons for credit card declines, and so on. Many in support see these problems and decide to get involved and work to fix them.

If you’re one of these people, learn everything you can about operations—and what that means for your company. Operations roles can vary wildly from one company to another. Agents might join a support engineering team to build better support tools, or a supply chain team, working to make sure the company is purchasing and producing the product it needs, communicating with suppliers and fulfillment centers, and meeting all expectations.

3. Work for the web team

A company’s web team is typically called many different things, depending on the organization. It might be development, tech, production or web. No matter the name or the org it reports to, the job is to work on, build, and maintain the company’s web pages and infrastructure.

This job is for agents with a strong interest in coding. You should ask what languages and skills are needed for your company’s web team and learn any skills you might need. One benefit is that customer service agents spend a lot of time on the company website or helping customer navigate through clunky UIs, confusing text or user experiences. Offer to do a test project with your web team to test your skills.

Once you do move to this role, you will know what works on the site, what’s confusing, and where customers run into trouble. You’re a perfect fit to help optimize the site and make it easier for everyone to navigate through, but be advised that this role is technical and deeply rooted in logic and how things work.

A couple years back, I hired a customer service rep who, even in the interview, said she would like to eventually move to the web team. She was taking online coding and web design classes at night. After a year and a half, she had her chance and pitched adding “Click here” text to replace was was formerly just linked images. Our customers, who were mostly senior citizens, did not know they could click on the image of the product to learn more about it and often called with frustration around this, not knowing how or where they could learn more. What seemed like universal and obvious behavior to the web team was not to our customers. After some resistance, especially around the impact on design, the team saw sales were flagging and decided to add the text. It wasn’t long before sales lifted and customers stopped calling with confusion.

4. Head to human resources

This move may require a certification or some extra schooling, but customer service and human resources have a lot in common. Both are roles that require knowing how to talk to people, especially those who are upset or unhappy. In many ways, human resources is the customer service department for internal employees. The job requires active listening skills, the ability to comfort, presenting new ideas or policies in a positive way, and the ability to compassionately deliver bad news.

Add to that, customer service teams are typically large organizations and as part of the team, you have a lot of insight into what works for employees, and what doesn't.

The door is wide open, if you want it to be

The number of ways a customer service agent can pivot within a company is endless. Every company is different, offering different functions, opportunities, cultures. If you’re working in customer service now but have a passion for another area of the business, talk to other people in your company. Make it known that you have an intention to eventually pivot, learn what you need to do to make that transition, and begin working toward it. You also need to learn how to talk about the role you want to move into, as you’ll need to convince others that you have the ability to perform the job. From my standpoint though, no job is harder than what you do in customer service—other jobs just require different sets of skills.

Make it known that you have an intention to eventually pivot, learn what you need to do to make that transition, and begin working toward it.

Lastly, if you love customer service, don’t leave it. It’s no longer a career at the bottom of the corporate totem pole, and it shows every sign of continuing to grow in significance for businesses of all kinds. Within customer service, grow your career by becoming a student of management and leadership. You can become a leader in customer service and, at the right company, you may just have one of the loudest, largest voices in the room, with more influence over the customer experience and success of the business than other areas of the organization.

Amanda Carden is Director of Customer Service at 4Patriots, a Nashville-based company that sells disaster preparedness products and nutritional supplements online. She has experience in marketing, e-commerce, publishing, retail, and food services (she twisted and baked pretzels in Philadelphia, her hometown). Amanda graduated from Temple University with a BA in Journalism. She now lives in South Florida with her husband and fur-babies. She enjoys gardening, swimming, going to the beach, traveling, writing, and reading.