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Changing the narrative on careers in customer service

Customer service jobs have a reputation for being entry-level, means-to-an-end gigs that go nowhere. But in our hyper-digital world, that’s changing. There’s a growing awareness that people on the front lines are astute, savvy, and big-thinking—and it pays to invest in them and keep them engaged.

How do leaders nurture and motivate the customer service employee? I talked to Jeff Toister, employee training expert, speaker, and author of The Service Culture Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Getting Your Employees Obsessed with Customer Service for answers.

His take? Create a Venn diagram of employee satisfaction and organizational success.

“What are the needs of the organization in terms of the roles you want to fill and what are the career plans for the people who have the skills you need? Identifying the overlap can help leaders understand where opportunities lie,” said Toister.

“Not many organizations have put in the effort to do that in a disciplined way. So, not only is it hard for them to create career paths for their employees, but it’s difficult for them to forecast their talent needs and be prepared.”

With Toister’s insights, here are some ways that customer service leaders can cultivate a mutually beneficial relationship with their employees.

Acknowledge the value of the customer service employee

Let’s be real: a whole lot of people working in customer service don’t identify their work as their dream job. “Most of us didn’t grow up playing customer service agent with our friends, and there were no customer service superhero posters on our walls,” said Toister.

Unfortunately, the pervasive perception of the lowly customer service representative is perpetuated within the very organizations that benefit from this neglected department.

It’s challenging for executives to calculate how an improvement in customer service—for customers and employees—affects their bottom line. “The fundamental problem is that leaders aren’t able to translate the problems into business metrics,” said Toister.

One way to combat this issue and build up morale is to go out of your way to identify the important contributions of the customer service organization. Make a strong case for building a robust team and articulate the negative financial impact of an understaffed or undertrained department, which may include longer wait times for customers and repeat callbacks if issues aren’t resolved the first time.

“It’s the customer service function that has the most intimate and frequent connection with customers,” he said. “This is valuable and there are numbers to support that. You just have to know where to look.”

Make a strong case for building a robust team and articulate the negative financial impact of an understaffed or undertrained department.

Invest in people with the right skills—and pay them for it

Once upon a time in customer service, agents fielded calls for everything from checking on an order to resetting a password to filing a complaint. Today, most of these routine service transactions can be done online and phone calls are reserved for handling something more complex.

"The volume of calls is the same, but they take longer to resolve and have more emotions attached to them,” said Toister. “You need someone who has a higher level of abilities than you did 10 years ago. You need to invest in people who are technically competent and can connect with customers."

In an interview with Zendesk, BombBomb’s SVP of Operations Jonathan Bolton outlined his approach to investing in talent, explaining that an investment in slightly overqualified customer service employees who can be further developed is critical. “We believe that if you don’t make that investment in your Customer Care team and employees, your company’s returning revenue is at great risk. I don’t just need someone to answer the phone; I need someone who can build a relationship, who can listen, and who can make decisions and provide great advice about the product."

"You need to invest in people who are technically competent and can connect with customers." - Jeff Toister

When it comes to finding ideal candidates who bring something extra to the organization, Toister recommends looking beyond a candidate’s work history and hiring for skills like empathy, listening, understanding complex problems, and creative problem-solving.

Have advancement avenues that fit employee profiles

"You have to be able to offer an ideal candidate not just a salary but an opportunity that's a good fit for them," said Toister.

A clear pathway to advancement or alternate opportunities is a good start. He outlines three ways a company might entice and accommodate a valuable employee:

1. Level up. Many customer service teams have different tiers of skill sets; ambitious employees will work to work their way through a clear pathway that rewards them with a pay bump.

2. Alternative areas of responsibility. Employees who quickly grasp their role are often great candidates to train or supervise others. The key is to offer the right professional development training in adult education or management so they’re as effective as they are eager.

3. Opportunities outside the customer service organization. Some customer service employees have potential to excel elsewhere. Although it might seem counter-intuitive to the customer service leader who loses talent, allowing an open pipeline for people who understand customers to move to other departments only strengthens the company as a whole.

The key is to offer the right professional development training in adult education or management so they’re as effective as they are eager.

Check in with employees about their career goals

Why wait for an exit interview to understand where things went wrong with an employee? Toister advises conducting regular “stay” interviews to keep on top of employee satisfaction.

They can be folded into annual performance reviews or done informally whenever a manager starts to wonder if motivation is flagging. It’s as simple as asking, “Why do you stay?”

“If you have a sense of why an employee is in the job, you can better manage their needs and yours. If they’re staying because they’re a camper and they love their job, you can stop worrying about promoting them. But if someone is staying and also they’re looking for the next opportunity, you can be proactive by helping promote them—and being ready to backfill,” Toister said.

To avoid costly employee turnover, especially of the highly-skilled variety, Toister says it’s critical for organizations to have open dialogues with employees about their career aspirations. Standout leaders offer advice and opportunities for training to help them meet their goals.

He points to companies with strong service cultures that understand the value of customer service, noting that they tend to expect more from their employees, hire from within, and expose the entire organization to customer service so everyone understands how it fits into the big picture.

“This gives more credibility to the customer service job but also helps develop empathy in other departments for underlines the value their colleagues bring to the table.”

Heather Hudson is a freelance journalist and corporate storyteller based in Toronto. She thrives on tackling a huge range of topics, from insurance to cars to small business to home renovations. Just please don’t ask her to write about spiders. That would be gross.