Five lessons learned from a call center – don’t be afraid of starting front-line

This article was originally published on LinkedIn and it’s reproduced here with permission from the author.

March 13th, 2006 – I started my first “real” job as a licensed insurance agent in a call center. I never planned to work in insurance and certainly never contemplated staffing the phones. I had taken a gap time following graduation returning to Australia where I studied aboard. I needed a job and knew it was a good company with additional opportunities.

I am grateful that I started in a call center. It has shaped my career path and professional perspective. I would advocate that more executives follow in the footsteps of Zappos and UPS where all must hold a front-line role answering the phone or delivering packages. There are lessons learned interacting with customers that can’t be taught but are simply experienced.

Here are my top five lessons learned from my time in the call center.

  1. Never losing sight of the customer
  2. Focusing on time management and process improvement
  3. Communicating empathy
  4. Letting it go
  5. Driving engagement and performance

I would encourage college graduates to not be reluctant in accepting these types of roles but embrace them as an opportunity to learn the business in a way not all associates can understand. Earlier this year, Forbes tackled the topic of customer service training for all.


 Never losing sight of the customer

When you work directly with the customer, you remember the final impact. It shapes your perspective as you make business decisions. As a product manager, I partner with pricing on our rate reviews but my background means that I am particularly mindful of how rate increases will ultimately be explained to the customer. I have been the licensed agent who had to elaborate on general rate increase in their area and save a policy from leaving. Being front-line to start means I want any decision to pass the out loud test. Does it make sense when you say it out loud? I ponder this because I have been in the service shoes explaining it to a customer.


Focusing on time management and process improvement

Call centers have quality measures in place as well as often involve incentive plans. These performance drivers put a focus on time management and process improvement. Anyone who has successfully worked the phones has an enhanced level of multi-tasking ability. It is beneficial to be self-aware of your processes and be seeking to improve as it results in better metrics. For example, I learned the most efficient method for entering quote information might not align with the system flow especially if the prospect provided needed info at a different time so having flexibility in navigating a system is beneficial which aided when I was a subject matter expert for a technology project. A common term in the call center is after call work which are the items typically finished after hanging up such as recording activity or remarking an account. Reducing after call work by multi-tasking would create additional opportunity to complete more work.

Building a strong sense of time management and process improvement early on in your career means you can accomplish and achieve more. You will already have the skills to balance competing priorities. You have ideas come to mind that will save time and reduce expenses which is beneficial in endless roles in every organization.


Communicating Empathy

When you work directly with the public, you will undoubtedly have scenarios arise outside your job training. I recall walking a recently widowed customer through her insurance policy which had always been handled by her husband. It took caring, empathy and patience to properly explain the changes to her coverage and what impact it had on her finances. I remember speaking to members with recently diagnosed health issues changing their insurance needs. It was imperative in both situations to clearly communicate empathy without eye contact or body language. This takes emotional intelligence to a unique level to articulate caring while still completing the task at hand.

Dr. Travis Bradberry and Jean Greaves who authored the best-seller Emotional Intelligence and run have spent years researching EQ.

“Emotional intelligence is your ability to recognize and understand emotions in yourself and others, and your ability to use this awareness to manage your behavior and relationships.”

They found that emotional intelligence impacts success. Research has shown that 90% of top performers have high EQ, 58% of job performance is due to EQ and those with high EQ earn $29K more per year.

Increasing your emotional intelligence has shown to improve your career prospects in promotions and pay but it also creates a better working team environment. I have found a key component of emotional intelligence is empathy. Working directly with the public increases the chances of building this skill earlier and stronger which will pay dividends in your career both personally, professionally and financially.


Letting It Go

With call center jobs, you learn to let it go. Customers will yell at you. Customers will cuss at you. Customers will lie to you. My supervisor had listened to a call where a guy cussed me out and reinforced that I didn’t need to continue calls like it. My reply was that it didn’t bother me. I knew that I hadn’t done anything wrong and his being upset was his choice. Long before Elsa belted out, let it go my call center days taught me that business is business and it isn’t personal. You must let go of the bad calls to move onto the good ones.

Throughout a career, you will have peers and leaders that make decisions you don’t agree with or comments that make you cringe. Hopefully, no cussing or yelling involved but there will be approaches that do not align with your viewpoint. You can’t control what others say or do but you can decide how you react. I am a firm believer in giving myself enough space to digest and process but then simply let it go. It isn’t personal after all.

For example, you may find yourself on a vendor selection or associate hiring committee and your favorite isn’t selected. There is no reason to dwell on this decision but instead, let it go and move forward with how you can make chosen direction as successful as possible.

Driving Engagement and Performance

Call center jobs are not generally viewed as glamorous and are prone to burn-outGood companies counterbalance these known truths by valuing their people and investing in them. This results in a variety of methods to drive engagement and performance through activities, recognition, and incentives. These same methods to increase associate satisfaction can be applied to other business units within large organizations.

There are countless examples from the call center floor that can be moved into other business functions. For example, holding a contest to drive a key function that awards a prize which could be a material item (tshirt, tv, etc.), memorable experience (tickets, trip, etc.) or rest and relaxation (extra time off, boss does job for a day, etc.). You can create a traveling trophy, brag board or award show to make sure recognition becomes a regular part of the day-to-day of your culture.

Harvard Business Review found that leaders who rank high for both driving results and employee engagement were in the 91st percentile of leaders.

Whether you desire to be an executive or to make a difference regardless of your role, fine-tuning the skills of encouraging those around you will lead to success. An engaged team leads to higher performance results and increased employee satisfaction which benefits all associates.

Front-Line Foundation

I would highly encourage those entering the workforce to contemplate starting front-line. It builds a different foundation for your future career path as you learn the business from the ground up. I didn’t know when I started in a call center that it would undoubtedly positively impact my success. My days on the phones shape the type of leader I am today and will grow to be tomorrow.

About Alicia Gross

Living in Des Moines, Alicia unexpectedly and ironically found a career in insurance. She graduated with a Bachelors in Corporate Communications and Marketing and also obtained an MBA in Executive Development. Alicia started as a licensed agent in 2006 and then transitioned into sales operations focusing on project management and continuous improvement. She shifted from direct sales to product management in 2015. Today, she is responsible for the growth and profitability of auto and home lines in her assigned states. She loves that the role is a mix of analytics, collaboration, communication, and strategy. Alicia is involved with various associate resource groups, mentoring opportunities and recruiting efforts. Outside insurance, she is passionate about family, traveling and giving back.

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