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The siren call of customer service

When I tell people I’m a pastor’s kid, they often give me a funny look and say, “Wow, you’ve probably done some crazy stuff in your life.” While it’s true that I’m a product of an upbringing similar to legends like Jessica Simpson, Katy Perry, The Jonas Brothers, and Marcus Mumford, I generally kept my nose clean. (I was joking until I got to Marcus Mumford; he really is a legend.)

What’s my calling?

Growing up in my house, I frequently heard the word calling used in the context of “being called to a life in the ministry.” It was assumed that at some point I’d be the fourth generation to continue on in the family business. My family talks about church and ministry like plumbers or accountants might speak about pipes and balance sheets.

Off to college I went with no clue what I wanted to do with my life—with no calling to speak of. Two years in I finally selected a major—Management and Organizational Communication—because I had to. Then graduation came and I was armed with some incredible experiences, (ask me about the summer internship in Hawaii), but still had zero clue what I was called to do with my life.

A number of my friends went to school to be doctors, lawyers, and teachers and they’re actually working in those fields. Oh, to have that same sense of purpose.

Stumbling into customer service

Just when I started to wonder what was wrong with me, my college roommate told me about an opportunity to do customer service at a cool SaaS startup that offered free pizza and a ping-pong table.

It didn’t take long to realize that I was a good fit for the role. I’m a problem solver, an effective communicator, and great at relationships. I also got the hang of the technical stuff pretty quickly. I thought: “I can do this job for a season until I figure out my real calling in life.”

A couple years later I was still there and was told I had management potential and got promoted. As our customer base grew and call queues filled up, dart boards were replaced with metric wallboards. Also increasing? My waistline, TUMS consumption, and cholesterol. So, the free pizza was replaced with salads and running shoes.

As our customer base grew and call queues filled up, dart boards were replaced with metric wallboards. Also increasing? My waistline, TUMS consumption, and cholesterol.

A master’s degree along the way transformed my workplace into a laboratory for testing out the ideas and concepts we discussed in class. This cemented my love of those lessons on management, human resources, and other topics I’d forgotten in my undergrad.

I remember hearing the great Laker point guard Magic Johnson share in an interview about a time when a mentor took the sports section from his hands and replaced it with a Wall Street Journal. Heeding that advice I began networking with others in my industry through Twitter chats, conferences, blogs, books, and podcasts, and learned to speak a new language—one with terms like customer satisfaction, average handle time, and service level.

A couple years quickly ballooned into nearly seventeen and counting—and I still haven’t been whisked away (or called) into another profession. Through much of this time I’ve held out for a vocation where I could help people and really make a difference. Imagine that.

Customer service as a career

Sometimes I can be a little slow on the uptake. Just ask my brothers what it was like to sit in the back seat of our red 1987 Toyota Corolla as I got to know a clutch. I seriously stalled so many times that one of the headlights fell out.

I’d love to tell you I’ve been a model customer service citizen throughout my years, but my refusal to embrace this as a career also bred some negative behaviors. I once threw my phone

There were also the countless times I tried to cut customers short while they were venting in hopes of speeding the process along. Not a recommended de-escalation technique unless you want customers to ask to speak with your CEO.

Something clicked a few years ago, however. I’m not sure if it was the birth of my first son, or perhaps the act of starting a blog about customer service, or managing a customer service team, but at some point I got to thinking about my purpose in life and the legacy I wanted to leave. It slowly began to dawn on me that I could make a positive impact in the lives of others right here and now—after all, I’m dealing with people all day, every day.

It slowly began to dawn on me that I could make a positive impact in the lives of others right here and now—after all, I’m dealing with people all day, every day.

A customer service life

What’s your relationship with customer service? Are you brand new to the field or do you have enough years under your belt to teach me a thing or two? Perhaps you’re a doctor, lawyer, or teacher type who doesn’t think customer service is in your job description. Maybe you’re on the engineering team and your manager keeps telling you to work on your “people skills.” Regardless of where you’re coming from, here are a few realizations I’ve had about customer service.

Stop waiting around. Practicing great customer service now will come in handy later. I remember staring at the clock waiting for the end of the day, mailing in many phone calls, and completely disregarding golden opportunities to help others. In the book Integrity Service, Ron Willingham says, “You’ll always be paid consistently with the size of the problems you solve. Solve small problems and you’ll receive small pay, but solve big problems and you’ll enjoy big pay.” Customer service is as great a place as any to practice working with others to solve problems and I’m a firm believer that this leads to opportunities to solve problems in a variety of other careers as well.

Good customer service will make you I’ve been married about as long as I’ve worked in customer service and have driven my wife to tears more than once by the way I spoke to her or failed to listen well. Customer service skills shouldn’t be exclusively reserved for customers on the other end of the line while we’re on the clock. When I realized that the benefits of listening, empathy, and ownership applied to everyone, all of my relationships improved.

Internal customer service just as important as external customer service. Possibly more important. Never check your customer service skills at the door when you get promoted to a leadership role, move to another department, or simply work with the person next to you. Take those skills with you and remember that the way you treat others in your organization affects how they treat your customers. Try this the next time someone from the customer service team comes to ask you a question. Close your laptop, turn and face them, smile, and ask, “How can I help?” and see if that doesn’t put them in a better mindset to help customers.

Close your laptop, turn and face them, smile, and ask, “How can I help?” and see if that doesn’t put them in a better mindset to help customers.

What's next? More customer service.

I still joke that I’m not sure what I want to be when I grow up. I’ll probably try to get as much mileage out of that one as I can. In all seriousness, though, I no longer wonder when I’m magically going to be called to something else. I’m over that. Sure, my career will continue to evolve in my remaining years, but regardless of where it goes, customer service will always be a part of it.

I think I’ve been following my calling all along.

Jeremy Watkin made the move from Southern California to Eugene, Oregon in 2015 to join FCR, a provider of outsourcing services, as their Head of Quality. He sort of defaulted into a customer service role nearly 17 years ago and has chronicled much of his journey toward finding real meaning in serving others without totally losing it on his blog: Customer Service Life. Jeremy loves his wife and three boys and routinely enjoys getting lost somewhere in the trees in his new home state. Follow him on Twitter: @jtwatkin.

Original illustration by Andrea Mongia.