My entire career - which has spanned several decades and has included a wide, random variety of jobs - has been spent in a customer-facing role.
In my early 20's, I worked as a cashier at my hometown's local music store. The store is family-owned, run by a traditional, hard-working East Texas family, and has always been a bit of a time capsule. The male employees dominate one side of the store, selling guitars, drums and joking around with the customers, while the women on the other side of the store wear aprons and sell sheet music to the legions of piano teachers who live in East Texas. My mother is one of those teachers, and I would never have gotten the job without her connection, so I'm not complaining, but I was never a great fit there, mainly because I was a distracted, often overwhelmed employee, and one of the youngest people who worked there. There was nothing I could do to avoid looking elderly wearing that stupid apron. But while I didn't mind helping my customers, I was much more interested in the teenage boy customers who came in to murder "Stairway to Heaven" on every guitar in the store.
I would have been a great employee if it weren't for the cash register and a little thing they used to call making change. Our boss, a painfully shy and serious red-faced man, felt it was extremely important for his employees to know how to count change. When a customer would come up to pay, I would carefully key in their items and pray they would write a check. (For you who kids under 30 who don't know, people used to write checks and pay in cash.)
"That will be $19.52," I would say, beads of sweat forming at my hairline, "Will that be cash today?"
The customer would hand over a crisp $20, and I would start counting with my fingers (math is totally not my thing), frantically trying to figure out the proper change, when out of nowhere they would shove a nickel in my hand, and throw a complete wrench into my change-counting. It was torture.
To keep my job and thwart a nervous breakdown, I avoided the register whenever possible. Then I discovered a switch on the register that would tell you how much change to give back. Amazing! This system worked flawlessly for about a day, until our boss discovered that someone had messed with his register. I fessed up, and he became so angry he clenched his teeth, flushed into an unhealthy maroon shade, and promptly wrote me up.
Those extra pennies and nickels ultimately marked my decision to leave retail for good. Yet, somehow, despite my inability to count out change correctly, the customers loved me. I would patiently listen to endless stories of their little students, and go out of my way to find back copies of books we thought were out of print. At an early age, I learned that to win a loyal customer, the key is to win that customer's heart.
The same went for waiting tables. I've said this before, but I believe firmly that anyone who dines out should have a restaurant job at least once in their lives. For starters, it will make you a lifelong good tipper, but it will also give you the right to have an opinion on the level of service, because let me tell you, that job is not easy. It will earn you the right to judge if the server did a great job, or if they were terrible.
For the most part, I was beyond terrible. I required assistance constantly. My skinny spaghetti arms weren't strong enough to carry large trays of food, so I had to get the busboys to help. I had to write everything down in my illegible handwriting because I could only retain a few orders without spinning into a mental frenzy. I couldn't open a bottle of wine without shoving it in between my legs and yanking on the corkscrew until I turned purple. Because of this, I convinced the owner, a beloved Chinese man named Tommy, that I needed him to present the wine to the customers because they enjoyed the attention. And the customers did love it, which was great, because it helped my tips.
Yet somehow, even though I was the worst server in the place, I figured out how to keep the customers happy. I had a trick where I would remember the salad dressing and adult beverage choices of the regulars. That way, as long as I got those two things right, the rest would work itself out. Mrs. Lanier, for example, a woman who lived next door to my parents, will forever be associated with Parmesan Peppercorn on the side, and a glass of White Zinfandel. And even though my service was less than adequate, the regulars began to ask for me. For some reason, the personal touch made a difference.
Through the years, no matter what the job, I would work hard to ensure that my customers were happy. Then somewhere along the way, people became angrier, and more vocal with their frustrations, and I was forced to learn how to handle unhappy people.
My first experience with angry customers was when I was in my mid 20's, and worked as a telephone operator at a medical answering service while I was finishing up my degree. The hours were flexible, the pay was good, and we got discounted Six Flags Fiesta Texas passes, one of the most hilarious perks ever.
The job sounds easy but was definitely one of the most challenging of my life. Medical answering service operators spend their days fielding calls from worried, frazzled parents calling pediatricians, mentally ill patients calling from the day rooms at state mental health facilities, begging to be released, petrified husbands calling their wife's obstetricians when the first signs of labor appear, and the occasional country bumpkin who saves their bowel movement in a Mason jar to show to their family practitioner. That really happened! Once, a woman called in and asked to page the doctor because she had a "shadow in her panties." Don't ask me; to this day I still have no clue what that was about.
The nature of a medical answering service job is that your day has stressful peaks and valleys. Office opening and closing times were the busiest. These were the days when doctors wore pagers only, and few carried cell phones, so we paged the doctor with the telephone number they needed to call. For medical answering service operators, your customers are the patients, but your customers are also the doctors and nurses who rely on your service as well.
One particularly stressful day, I had many calls on hold and was struggling to keep up with the pace, and in the chaos, paged an incorrect number to a doctor who specialized in critical care. Unfortunately, he had a reputation for being a bit of a hothead, and it was no wonder, given that his job was tremendously stressful. He called in, asked to speak with the person who paged him, and proceeded to cuss me out while I sobbed/begged for forgiveness.
Months later I was promoted to supervisor, and one of the operators on my shift made a mistake with the same doctor. Stepping to the operator's rescue, I offered to take the angry call, and listened while he cussed and yelled. But this time, I didn't let him get to me. I knew by that point that when you encounter an angry customer, the best thing you can do give is them time to say what they need to say. Angry customers need to feel heard.
After the doctor stopped yelling, I calmly apologized and assured him that I would speak with the employee. He said another few choice and unpleasant words, and hung up the phone.
A few days later, the same doctor called in to pick up a page. By this time, he remembered my name, and after he jotted down the notes, almost meekly asked,
"You must really think I'm an ass, huh?"
I resisted the temptation to shout, "Totally!" Instead, I admitted that he could be intimidating, and that his strong reactions were not easy to take. I also added that because we had a phone relationship, that we should all be reminded that a human was on the other side of the phone. I was pretty candid. From there, we had a pleasant conversation. The doctor apologized, and admitted that his job was hard because he saw so much death. After that, our relationship was a much better one. By the time I finished my degree and put in my resignation, the doctor offered to write reference letters for me.
Fifteen years later, I'm still working on fine-tuning my customer service skills. I recently switched roles from a sales position to a customer success role at my company. My job is to ensure that our customers are happy, and that they remain customers for life. I love this job, because most of my day is spent helping educate customers on why our product, a sales enablement software application, can make their jobs easier. I'm constantly being challenged by unique situations, different customer needs, and I get to problem-solve and help companies discover strategies to meet their goals by using our product.
The other day, I spoke with a customer who wanted to cancel his service. Because I was new to the account, it was a unique situation, because we didn't have an existing relationship. The customer wanted to set up a call to discuss the cancellation that Friday, and no later, as he wanted to finalize things, had upcoming travel, and was unwilling to drag it out. As luck would have it, I was fully booked with scheduled customer meetings, and was therefore in something of a professional pickle. I managed to cut one call short and shuffle things around to accommodate the customer's schedule, and holed up in a conference room, prepared for a tense conversation.
My goal was to listen more than talk, and given that I am chatty, this is always a challenge. But I bit my tongue as the customer explained the various reasons for his decision to cancel. The reasons varied -- some were legitimate frustrations, and others were more of a misunderstanding and lack of communication on the part of both parties. I waited for the customer to finish, and channeled the energy of one of my former sales managers, a woman who had a unique talent for disarming even the angriest customer by using her smooth Texas drawl.
"Do you know what I like to do in my personal time?" I asked. "You're going to think this is silly, but I like to watch makeover shows. I absolutely love to see a transformation."
He sat silent. I could feel him rolling his eyes through the phone.
"So here is what I'm going to propose. I would like to make-over your company. I want to help transform this experience and do everything I can to help your team see the value in our product. I want to hear about their frustrations, and help offer advice to make their experience a better one. I commit to taking great care of them, if you will give me a chance to makeover this situation."
This cheesy makeover analogy certainly wasn't planned. I must admit, it's actually quite goofy, and I wondered if I was going to make the tense situation even worse by using such a silly comparison. However, by the end of the conversation, the customer had agreed to take the weekend and sleep on it. By Monday, he emailed me with plans to let me speak with two of his sales reps about their experience, with the hopes that I can help work on a solution to their problems.
For me, this was a big victory. My job title - Customer Success Manager - is a perfect description of what I'm tasked to accomplish. I want my customers to be successful. But most of all, I want them to experience excellent customer service, because more and more, I find that customer service is on the decline. I believe firmly that our product is the best solution on the market, but I also believe firmly that part of why we keep our customers is because we take such great care of them.
I'm not really offering up a big moral lesson here, but perhaps the way to deliver stellar customer service is actually quite basic. To some level, we all have customers - whether they are external or internal ones - so perhaps it's worth noting that even if at some point in your career you're just a few levels above being a mediocre employee, that if you focus on allowing the customer to feel heard, that customer is likely to stick around.