icon-folder-black Customer Service

Memoirs of a Customer Service Associate

icon-calendar 2020-11-09 | icon-microphone 24m 11s Listening Time | icon-user Joseph Ianni

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Joseph has worked a lot of jobs over the years, some good, some he's under contract not to talk about, but since you'll likely be hiring people to serve your customers, Joseph hopes you'll listen to some first hand feedback from a seasoned vet.

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DISCLAIMER: Any advice I give is solely based on my own experience and research. There is no guarantee as there are many variables that will impact your success. Everything stated should be taken as opinion.

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Tags: #Ecommerce #E-commerce #CustomerService #CustomerServiceAgent #CustomerServiceAssociate  #WorkFromHome #OnlineBusiness #Debutify #Customers #CustomerCare 

Good to have you here. One of the most essential components to a successful business is customer service, a position I’ve held throughout numerous companies in my 15 years in the workforce. I wouldn’t call it a thankless job, difficult and stressful at times, sure, but I’ve been thanked many times both by customers and management. I’ve been the reason why customers come back, and at times have rubbed a few people the wrong way. We all make mistakes, but the worst mistake is not to learn anything from it. I have two goals with today’s episode, I want to give you a broad scope of what customer service is like in our current landscape, and I also want to tell you about my experiences which shape how I think the job should be handled. Although the market evolves, the need to put customer’s minds at ease and solve their problems remains. How we handle it is what changes. I was the referee at an indoor arena, grocery clerk, sales and service for four separate watch related companies, one of which was conducted online, a home decor and furniture outlet, a costume shop which for reasons that will become increasingly obvious as you get to know me, is one of my favorites, I also freelanced for the last 6 years which I suppose counts as customer service, if you treat your clients like customers… I tend to not see it that way, clients to me are a much more personal relationship, an acquaintanceship forms that both sides can enjoy. The only job I had where I didn’t have to provide any consumer satisfaction was background acting. Now, because we are an ecommerce company, show and platform, I note that experiences within brick and mortar are less relevant, but I still have some insights I can share that I hope you find valuable.


Some ground rules I’ll be going through; I have no intention of outing anyone personally, I don’t believe in that. Normally I have no issue bringing up businesses by name because they’re publicly traded companies, and from the perspective of a customer I consider it a sacred duty to be vocal about my experience. But when it comes to my experience as an employee I would rather not, much of my experience is characterized by my own point of view, and I don’t want these businesses reflected in a way that's unfair to them, even if I intend to make them look good. Lastly, I speak of customer service, but in several cases that would also include sales, so it’s easier for me to refer to myself as an agent. With that out of the way, let’s begin: my first experience in customer service was a lemonade stand I tried to run as a kid. Ok, I’m just saying that because it’s technically true, but there’s nothing valuable there other than to listen to your mother when she asks you to put the table away and go eat. 


My first insight is the customer/company tension equation, there’s always going to be a tug of war between expectations of the company and the way we treat the customer, where us agents are in between these two points. A company expects certain competencies and compliances with protocol, these range from having a pulse, to fully embodying the spirit of the brand, to the point of becoming a character. It’s perfectly reasonable to set expectations for your employees, but as individuals we’re the ones that are making the most of a connection with customers, and unless one is lacking any emotionality, we have to gauge the willingness of customers to reciprocate, regardless of what the company needs. Push too hard and maybe they buy that day, but don’t feel so good about it. Don’t push at all and they end up unconvinced there’s anything special about buying from us over a department store where they can get a discount. As I’ve said before, the first lesson I learned from one of the top salespeople is that the product sells itself. And I agree with that to this day, I believe the job of a sales agent is to validate the customer’s decision and guide their already good decision into a better one. Don’t figure out how to make them spend money, figure out how to secure value. On one side of the tension equation, I refer to my luxury watch job, it was one of the hardest jobs I worked at, but also the one that taught me the most about a good work ethic. We were trained in a way that promoted going above and beyond for customers from the moment they walked through the door. Instead of the usual “if you need anything let us know.” they wanted us to say “hey, nice outfit!” or “is that coffee for me?” something like that. They would also do chat-ins, a 5 minute warmup before a shift starts. In addition to being handed a daily sales goal, these would be miniature interviews where I’d have to remember something about the latest marketing campaign, or find a creative solution to a problem. The company also had a policy that your sales would dictate your hours. Now, this was the first job I got without any kind of hookups, and was compelled to keep this job, so I obliged. What I couldn’t grasp was the level of seriousness I’m supposed to take it. Every customer that would walk in, provided the floor manager was there, which was often, I’d have to gauge how “on” I need to be. If I was too “on” the customer might feel like they’re not making a genuine connection, if I wasn’t “on” enough I’d get a talking to by the manager. Now, I walked away from that job feeling like I had honed a lot of skills, so as critical as I am I have a positive outlook on the company. On the opposite end, when I worked at the costume shop, I was willing to switch “on” because I enjoyed the product and helping customers meant engaging in the creative process, so that energy came from a more sincere place. Hilariously, my manager wanted me to dial it back because there was so much to do, spending time with customers was counterproductive. The best balance between these two points was a second retail watch job I had picked up later on after the first. Corporate was fairly hands off for the majority of my tenure, and as a result I had full control over how I wanted to approach customers. This meant I could be as energized or as chill as I’d like, and my sales were fine. But again, the product sells itself, I was just the guy who made the experience more enjoyable. As an agent, in order to deal with this tension, you need to find a position where you can unearth the most amount of energy to use your presentational skills, the more enthusiastic you are about the product, the easier it is to do. As a company, you keep on doing exactly what you know to be best, you’re the one with the data. What throws this equation out of whack is when one has a bad boss, but the employee is desperate to keep the job. This happened during my apprenticeship, where the boss was, and I say this in full understanding of meaning, abusive. They came from Europe and never quite got down the whole passive aggressive Canadian style, and over the six months I was there, voices were raised numerous times towards me. Praise the light I had the luxury to quit and try another job. People who think negativity or fear are effective motivators are out of their minds, it’s good to have a little fear, or a little negativity, they’re highly potent, but positivity requires energy, and overcoming negativity with positivity is a massive drain on the psyche, so when one is constantly inundated with disrespect and vile, the ability to make correct decisions dissipates. Which only leads to more raised voices. Customers would end up seeing the look of panic on my face and who knows what effect that had on the bottom line. The tension also exists virtually, one of my most recent job positions was a virtual agent. Our priority was to answer calls, followed by speaking to people on chat virtually, followed by answering emails. When working in person, only the most unreasonable of customers wouldn’t understand the concept of taking a turn, if I'm in mid conversation with someone, the next person will most likely understand. Working virtually this is not something I can rely on, although I can only have one phone call at a time, I could be managing several chat conversations, all of whom don’t realise I could be talking to several other people. Neither customer thinks I’m multitasking, and it would look bad on us if I said I was. One multiple occasions, customers would write “hello?” in chat if I didn’t respond in under ten seconds. One of them wrote “Well now as a result of this appalling customer service I have NO confidence in this company.” That one was my fault though.


My second insight is burnout. At the luxury job, the one where I had to put on a face, again I walked away having learned the most but 90% of employees stick around for at most 6 months, I stayed for two years and only left to pursue the apprenticeship which went abysmally. The employee who stuck around the longest was also the most chill person I ever met, everything seemed to just roll off her. Her sales were pretty good too. Depending on the company, they might actually prefer to cycle through agents. Here’s my thought process, on the one hand you have people who’ve been there at length and know the product and operation well, but unless they have an innate energy based on their product enthusiasm, or are just energetic in general, over time it becomes difficult to engage at the same level as someone on 3 month probation. Not to mention trying to have a creative approach to each customer who walks through the door. The best way to handle burnout is preventative measures on both the company’s and employees shoulders. For employees, finding a job and holding it can be difficult, so “just quit” is far from the advice I’d give, but you should always have in your mind what kind of job you’d have the most organic energy to do. And take strides towards that position. And of course, a healthy lifestyle goes a long way. For company’s, if burnout is an issue with employees, one method is to lean in to this, and focus on hiring a steady stream of temporary employees to work 3-6 months, if they have to leave for school or to pursue a career prospect, they can move on before burnout sets in. The second method would be to delegate tasks so that team members can focus on fewer roles but ones they do well. At my luxury job, I didn’t perform better because I had to sell up to a certain goal to secure more hours. I understand the logic but it created an element of fear that bubbled underneath the surface, and it made me as an employee feel like I was at odds with the company rather than a team member. It was a lot of luck. I subverted this because I noticed there were a number of tasks that needed doing; such as battery changes, taking out the trash… getting coffees… It got to a point where I could spend a whole shift not needing to sell but improving the operation for everyone else. While it may end up being inefficient to specifically assign roles to employees when other stuff needs doing, endowing employees with specialties does keep everyone working well within their lanes. This reduces burnout a great deal by characterizing some shifts as high pressure performance shifts, others as more relaxed but still important.


My third and final insight is the power of apology. Sorry, we’re all out of unsalted butter. Sorry I just sold the last of that model, the display is the only one we have left. Agents need to say sorry a lot, and many times it’s not necessarily our fault. This is taxing mentally for anyone who means what they say, and I’ve gotten an earful a number times from customers. Most of them follow up their rant by apologizing to me because they recognize there’s not much I can do. Now, my philosophy is that as an employee of the company, if I’m going to take their paycheque, I’m going to take their problems. If someone has that much of an issue with a company where they cannot fathom the decisions the company makes, they can't then accept payment knowing what those issues are. We all make mistakes, and we want to hold ourselves to a higher standard, so here’s how I break down apologies. Level one is simple. I'm sorry: This is the one that we can put up there with please and thank you, it shouldn’t cost you anything to say. It’s a simple demonstration of basic empathy for others, even in the smallest incidents where a certain flavor of popsicle isn’t available. As long as you mean it, and it doesn’t have to mean that much. I have so many examples of this I could do a whole show on all the times I said sorry. Level two is: I apologize. In all three levels I give you, all three call in to question whether or not you need to take responsibility or accountability. Responsibility means the fault is yours, accountability means you’re going to do something about it. Saying I apologize is a formal, often professional, admittance of wrongdoing. Here’s an incident where I wish I said it; at the home decor and furniture store, I spent the first few months there working in the warehouse side, unloading product, assembling furniture, basically heavy lifting. Now, I’m not known for my physique, and although I could keep up the first few months, the work took an increasing toll on me physically, which made the other warehouse staff increasingly irritated when I’d be in. However, my knack for customer service was already fine tuned by that point, so when it came time for my three month review, I and my manager were in agreement I was a poor fit for lifting rugs, but I made the case that I’d be great on cash. My first day on cash went pretty good, but there was one mistake I made that sticks out all these years later. This one lady comes up to cash with a bunch of lamps. 12-14 lamps. There were a lot of lamps. She needs to head back to the aisle for a moment I think because she was missing a lamp. So she goes to get it, leaving all the other lamps on my counter. I decide to ring up the next customer in the meantime, she comes back and is furious. She thinks I should’ve waited for her. In retrospect yeah, I agree. At that time I should have said I apologize (Or say I’m sorry with that level of power) and that it’s my first day on cash so I wasn’t sure what to do. Instead I said nothing, just kinda froze up. Anyways, level three is the most powerful apology in your arsenal, I call it: “That will never happen again” I’ve never had to say it to a customer, I’ve never made a mistake that bad. Family, friends and coworkers, because we forge relationships with them over months and years, it’s frankly an inevitability. That will never happen again represents a pivotal moment in your life, where you come to realise a part of you is simply unacceptable. It’s full personal responsibility and accountability. It’s a promise to others that your flaws are not a pattern, and that you are committed to real, tangible growth. 


I predict, as we grow together throughout this show, I’ll be coming back to this with some more insights, as I have more time to stew. But for now, I leave you with those and hope they’re worth thinking about. Now, let’s address the situation at hand. What we’re dealing with now is an environment where customer service is no longer just answering the phone or greeting people who walk in with a smile, it’s a many headed beast. We’re going to go through the different methods. Social media has risen to prominence, which means it’s technically an outlet for customers to reach out to you on; according to medium.com, 42% of the world’s population are on social media and 53% of twitter users expect to hear back from brands within an hour of contact. Things can get pretty intense on social media too, since it’s a public display. I remember this one time McDonalds was trying to promote a burger, and Facebook took the video by storm, “why don’t your milkshake machines work!?” “What can I get for under three dollars?” “Is it true you use slaughterhouses?” That last question was mine by the way. This means in addition to having customer service agents, you’re also going to need social media experts who know how to navigate a dozen or more platforms with different rules and tones. Medium goes on to speak about the concept of an omnichannel, which I’ve essentially broken down already; as millennials enter the workforce, they’re ready to engage with customers via text, live chat, and social media. It would be a bit difficult to have several devices at one's fingertips, so an omnichannel contact software like 8x8 would give companies a chance to streamline both external and internal communications. The second component to all this is self service, medium.com estimates that 70% of customers prefer to do things on their own, a sentiment I echo whenever I visit the pharmacy. The third component which is absolutely vital to talk it about is AI, some good news off the bat, 63% of customers are fine with being served by a chatbot, as long as they can escalate to a live agent if need be. Medium.com goes on to recommend a product tour integration. This is where customers can interact with a guide that takes them through the website in a way that both satisfies the customer’s needs, but also highlights the features of the website where they might otherwise go amiss. One such program is helppier.com, which streamlines the customer experience so that they can navigate from page to page swiftly, one method for instance is to provide customers with tooltips, little question mark icons next to key areas on screen that a customer can click on if they need help. I can’t recall any site in particular, but I know there have been times where I hovered my mouse over some text hoping for a popup window that’d provide me with some extra info. One thing very specific to ecommerce and dropshipping is that with scaling, the person by person nature servicing customers, in the vein of boutique sales may not be enough. It’s doable, and I invite anyone to tell me how they’ve approached customer service in a way that’s unique to them. But to maintain consistency across what could potentially be 1000s of people interacting every day, you would have to hire and train a lot of agents. If you go this route, speaking as someone who’s done it for years, there is an art to treating each customer individually and providing an experience that makes their day. It’s fun, and I believe the value of it depends on the independent value of the product, the more expensive a single purchase is, the more likely a customer would want to speak to a live agent. You have the power to scale up your operation with a program such as manychat. What this little gem can do is create a flowchart of conversation prompts from customers, and reply with a message crafted in anticipation. Now, at first, putting myself in the shoes once again of an agent, the thought of automating my position outright is alarming, but there’s nuance. You see, if there’s one thing consistent with every position I’ve held where I answered customer questions, I’ve answered the same questions over and over. As I mentioned way back in an earlier episode, it got to the point where I had a google document with dozens of responses ready to copy and paste. When one works on the cutting edge of technology and innovation, energy expended is precious. It was a poor use of creative energy to repeat myself, especially online where diction and tone could not be conveyed by text. It was repetitive in person too, but it was easier since I had the interactive energy of another person in front of me… being around people...I miss that… Anyways with a program like manychat, a lot of those routine questions are handled by AI, allowing for VAs to step in when a question is far too nuanced for the bot to handle. One example where this would be implemented perfectly was when I ordered a new stylus from digital magicka, they advertise a one size fits all stylus that can be used on any touch screen. Any surface? Most of us would ask? Well they got lots and lots of people asking “what about my iphone?” “well what about MY iphone?” “what about my tablet?” etc etc, that would be a situation where you either have someone with a big honking list of all the devices it can and can’t work with, and then manually check each time until it’s committed to memory. OR you can use chatbot. 


That’s it for today, do you have any transformative customer service experiences you’d like to share? What strategies are you using to handle this ever evolving situation? Let us know, contact podcast@debutify.com 








Written by

Joseph Ianni

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