Is Customer Service the Most Difficult Job in the World?
While physical capital refers to physical objects and human capital refers to unique personalities each of us brings to the table; social capital is the health and breadth of our collective understanding of one another. A society of diverse, capable but isolated individuals is not necessarily rich in social capital.
That’s what Robert D. Putnam probably thought when he chose the article titled “Bowling Alone” as an analogy for his book of the same name. Despite the fact that bowling has steadily increased in popularity over the past 20 years, the number of bowling leagues and similar social organizations have decreased over the same period. This shifted bowling from a primarily social activity to a primarily individual one.
The individualizing process has been steadily increasing via smart phones, social media, reality-based television, the two-career family and suburban sprawl. Putnam argued that all this risks making us spectators to life, limiting our exposure to and understanding of personal relationships and conflict resolution.
Social capital and the customer
Customers generally enjoy conformity and many are subject to the forces of the community they are part of. While conformity-seeking minimizes stress and benefits from group insulation properties, challengers of such behavior are also noticed and appreciated by those within the community.
Consider the rise of Uber and Amazon Dash. Just a decade ago it was inconceivable getting a personal, on-demand driver or your laundry detergent re-ordered with a push of a button. When such powerfully disruptive technologies get on our radar, we all take notice.
As a result, a small nudge in customer expectations can attract many more customers. The responsibility of dealing with more customers falls squarely on the shoulders of customer service representatives. They’re expected to be knowledgeable, helpful and friendly even when the environment least calls for it.
This may explain the challenges businesses face in communicating culture, recruiting and training for customer service positions.
Measuring emotional labor and its effects
No customer wants to deal with a lazy waitress, passive-aggressive clerk or a flight attendant who avoids eye contact so they don’t actually have to take any orders. Yet, such lapses in judgment (and courtesy) are quite common and are a direct result of emotional labor – a term coined by Arlie Hochschild’s in her book The Managed Heart.
In her book, Hochschild demonstrates that it takes measurable effort to display certain workplace emotions such as friendliness and enthusiasm. This work is required to overcome the difference between emotions an employee is expected to display and emotions an employee actually feels.
But what happens to the person when feelings become commoditized? This can have an negative overall effect on the customer service representative and eventually the customer.
Here are a few ways to avoid this:
- Hire the right people for the job.
Someone who is passionate about your industry is bound to have it reflected in customer service. It’s a good idea to hire car enthusiasts to work in the automotive department of a store, for example.
- Set the tone of support culture.
Managers don’t get the right behavior by asking for it, they get the behavior they encourage, nurture and reward. Managers should encourage positivism, risk-taking and facilitate career advancement.
- Establish communication channels.
Support teams suffer when leaders aren’t there – or don’t lead by example. Give employees a feedback and coping mechanism when external factors affect job performance.
Where customer service reps find themselves
Customers, support agents and business owners all want different things.
We especially shouldn’t deny that company-employee relationships are adversarial in nature. One is thinking about how great it would be for the other to come to work on Saturday, while the other just wants Friday to be over.
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Then there’s resentment according to wealth, power and social standing. Your employer isn’t obliged to share company information with you. What concerns them are your performance targets.
Besides, you have your own things to worry about. Lunch breaks, Facebook updates, news sites, personal commitments – things that rank high on the agenda for you, but certainly not at all important to the employer or to the customer.
What’s worse, this way of thinking is reinforced by our culture and mass media. Movies, television and news articles talk about the underappreciated worker. There’s usually no context provided about the business owner’s investment, risk, profit margins, taxes and costs associated with each employee. Nor do we hear about the end-user’s concerns on the other side of the spectrum.
The role of the business owner
Customer support representatives are often faced with pressures from both sides.
They understand that customers appreciate human service as opposed to being treated as a number. It’s human nature to remember friendly support interactions in a positive way, whether or not the end result is what the customer desires.
Yet they must support customers in working conditions as dictated by their employer. Managers simply aren’t open to or don’t spend enough time addressing root causes of employee disengagement and burnout:
- They’re not letting them do the job for whatever reason
- They’re not listening to their input and implementing it
- They’re not leading by individual and “team” example
- They don’t assign responsibility or have crisis management
- They can’t honestly and openly say why employees should care
Leaders have a responsibility to understand what talents and abilities every employee brings to the company. These should be the building blocks of your company culture. All too often managers fall into the trap of only asking the questions they’re seeking reassurance on. This doesn’t help in getting accurate responses or addressing the problem areas of any business.
Perhaps the most important thing to do is to look inwards. Many of us find it difficult to let go of the reins and gather the courage to be more vulnerable. It’s important to expose yourself to objective feedback from those who you depend on: your employees and customers.
Besides, if you’re not giving it your all, there’s always the possibility – in our world fraught with expressive individualism and abundant social capital – that your customer service job won’t be so easy to fill.