The Road to a Brighter Future isn’t a Dead-end Street

hThe despair was etched across Gavin’s face. His trembling handshake and hunched shoulders conveyed a very real sense of low esteem, dejection and hopelessness. We met at a student job fair last year where I was speaking to various colleges and businesses about job opportunities and education for young people in the customer service industry. Gavin told me that he had left school less than 9 months ago and since then had had four jobs, three of them in call centres that had all ended in tears – at least for him, and perhaps for the companies involved as well.

Once I looked beyond his sad demeanour, I found a bright, intelligent, articulate young man that belied his eighteen years.  He had done well in school and had the academic and family support to allow him to consider university. But with two older brothers who were still looking for meaningful employment after graduation, he saw no future there and decided to try to fast track himself to a sustainable career.

During his school days Gavin worked part time at a fast food joint, and while the pay was small and his treatment by the management small-minded, he found that he actually liked meeting people and “serving and helping “customers. So while he didn’t want to go back to flipping hamburgers, he looked for other customer service opportunities. As he lived in an area where there were a number of call centres, he was able to make the right connections and was quickly offered a job, as his obvious personal and academic attributes made him stand out. He was pleased and initially excited to hear that there were “significant opportunities” for advancement for people with the right skills and attitude.

But it didn’t turn out as he had hoped. While it wasn’t the modern sweat shop that many feel today’s call centres have become, he wasn’t mistreated, other than being poorly paid. But it was mind numbingly boring and the unchanging routine, constant monitoring and attitude of frequently rude and impatient callers was demotivating and demoralizing and eventually wore him down.

So after 3 months Gavin decided enough was enough and moved on. This time he thought he’d try the hospitality business. He found a job in local hotel that was part of an international brand and that seemed to have the promise of career advancement. Unfortunately the only movement was from the night shift to the day shift, and once again he decided that he needed to have an early check out.

Two more call centre jobs followed, but the pattern was pretty much the same. And while some may think he should have persevered, he told me that he saw what happened to the personalities, spirit and ambition of others in the call centres once they reached the point of no return and stayed on. He just saw a lifetime of soul destroying drudgery and mere subsistence, not a vibrant and rewarding career.

Training for a week or education for life?

One disquieting theme that ran through his story was about the quality of education and training that was provided, as well as the attitude of the company to signs of intelligent life in its workforce. While he did receive some basic training in the functional side of each of his roles, there was no real sense that he was being prepared for a broader role in the business or that his attitude and innovative ideas were recognized and appreciated. In one of his jobs he made a few observations and suggestions about possible ways to improve the service, but his line manager made it was clear that keeping his head down, following scripts, meeting internal metrics and completing calls as quickly as possible were the only things he needed to worry about.

This just served to make him even more frustrated and dejected, especially as he could see that in many cases customers weren’t being intentionally unpleasant nor had unrealistic demands. They just wanted the company to do the right thing for them. But as Gavin found out, many call centres have high turnover rates, due in part to difficult working conditions brought on by dumb policies and procedures and unrealistic metrics forced on them by unsympathetic management teams, driven only by the mantra of “adding shareholder value.” (This is why so many of the employees that he met and influenced his decisions are actively disengaged and do more harm than good in their jobs.)

Is there a place for today’s Good Samaritan?

Wanting to help others, especially those that clearly are in need of assistance and support, would seem to be a perfectly natural and honourable thing to do. And most of us, when confronted with this situation in a personal circumstance with relatives, friends and even strangers –think the Good Samaritan – don’t hesitate to step in. However, fewer people seem to want to do this as a “job” or consider it a worthwhile career. This is especially true in the customer service industry where, with few exceptions, most people see roles in call centres, shops and other customer facing environments as a stop gap to be endured, not celebrated. It’s an unfortunate reality that many businesses, and not just call centres, actively discourage any personal feelings or emotions creeping into their employees’ activities. It’s as if when they sign in for their shift, they’re asked to put their positive and caring attitude in a drawer marked “not to be opened during business hours.” Consequently many business people think that there’s little value in investing too much time or money in education, at least for these types of roles. This leaves customers and employees short changed and businesses missing a great opportunity to develop and strengthen their workforce and reduce attrition.

The times they are a’changin

But as with many things the world is changing: the peasants are revolting. We have perfect storm brewing made up of many different elements.

  • Customers are mad as hell and, with rising expectations and the power shift that social media has given them, have a new, loud and unforgiving voice.
  • Millenials, Gen Y and Digital Natives are not content with the status quo either as customers or prospective employees, and want change – now.
  • Today’s employees, with their focus on work-life balance and desire for an experience – not a job – are changing the rules, and the game, for good.
  • Technology companies are desperate to sell more multi-channel/omni-channel solutions that actually help people and are seeking the catalyst to make that happen.
  • Companies realizing that they need to up their customer service game, but not sure how and when to do it.
  • Governments at all levels under increasing pressure from all sides to fix the problem of youth & other unemployment and improve general living standards.

So how can we address these myriad issues along with some of the social and economic challenges that we’re facing, and create a positive employment environment for the future?

Committed customer service people do make a difference

To me the answer is clear.  Encouraging, inspiring and supporting young people to consider customer service as a socially valuable, personally rewarding and sustainable career has multiple benefits that extend beyond the boon of occupation and the enhanced economic health of the community and the country.

Many of us probably started our working life, even if just a temporary summer job, by being a waiter, working in a shop, a hotel, or some other similar service role.  Historically and functionally, these jobs are considered entry level positions that take little or no training or experience. I started my working life at 16, making toast and sweeping floors (but not at the same time) in a large urban hotel, which while challenging at the time, provided me with a unique insight into the inner workings and value of a role in the hospitality industry.

As Gavin found in his limited job experience, the idea of these types of jobs being dead end, gap fillers or something to do between acting gigs is perpetuated by the low pay, lack of respect and paucity of opportunity that is usually associated with them. Many organizations, and often the public, exacerbate this by their attitude to, and treatment of, the people who perform these jobs. So it’s no surprise that young people don’t even think about this as a solution to finding lasting work or a career.

Although not as bad as some European countries, youth unemployment in the UK is high at 19% (but is showing some signs of dropping). One reason for this might be the increased focus on and growing trend toward apprenticeships. But these apprenticeships are mainly in manufacturing and engineering. Consequently the words apprenticeship and customer service are rarely used in the same sentence. That needs to change. 

But are apprenticeships the answer?

There are people who believe that UK apprenticeship schemes are not working. A recent article in the Guardian entitled ‘Dead end’ apprenticeships are failing to help young people find lasting work, based on a report by Dr Martin Allen and Professor Patrick Ainley from the University of Greenwich, strongly suggested that “apprenticeships are failing to help young people find work and improve their skills.” They went on to state that  “With 80% of the population already qualified at this level, including most school leavers, it’s questionable whether apprenticeships are helping to upskill the workforce and make the economy more competitive.”

The report compared UK results and approaches to that of Germany, where 90% of apprentices secure employment by the end of the scheme and where, as Allen noted, apprenticeships give people a licence to practise.  “Rather than our ad hoc system that depends on an individual employer, we need to provide apprentices with transferable skills that they can take elsewhere.”

To me this last sentence contains the critical statement of intent that makes the potential for a different approach to customer service education so much more compelling and measurably valuable for long-lasting career development than many other “skills” based apprenticeships. The business knowledge, can-do attitude and emotional commitment, along with fundamental interpersonal skills, that need to be integral elements of a complete customer service education program are what separate this approach and provide the “transferable skills” and a licence to practice, that Allen highlights and values in the report.

Personal customer experience is the new differentiator

Business is changing fast. There is now an increasing focus on customer service, and its big brother customer experience that shows them as significant, important and measurable differentiators in an increasingly commoditized world.

Technology advancements, the rise and influence of social media and the ubiquity of digital and mobile devices, are having a pronounced effect on how we interact with companies. However, many businesses are beginning to realize that the latest shiny new toy is not the silver bullet that many technology companies claim it to be. Many believe that old fashioned, honest and accessible human contact is the more welcoming, connective, emotional, cord that ties together successful customer interactions, increased loyalty and moral and financial profitability. This human connection can be at the end of the phone, the other side of a web-chat, email or SMS exchange. It’s also in the guise of a developer of a web-site, IVR or other digital system that realizes that a real person will be actually using it and puts the human touch into the design and the user experience.

Despite the unrelenting rise in digital interactions and self-service activities, this continuing need for the personal touch was confirmed in a recent survey by B-Conversational that revealed that 78% of respondents expected to find a phone number on the home page of a web-site, and 73% love to speak to real people and want to access human beings even when the digital channels are working perfectly.

As a result businesses that want to thrive and survive are realizing how important it is to attract, acquire and retain talented and career minded young people. Whether you call them Millenials, Digital Natives or Gen Y, they all come pre-wired with tech savvy capabilities, inquiring minds and a desire to make a difference, and can bring innovation, enthusiasm and a positive attitude that can flourish in this new reality.

But where are these opportunities, the organizations, and as importantly, the incentives this new generation needs to encourage and stimulate them to consider a career in a role with increasingly bad vibes. Customer service, and in particular call centres are is still seen through a lens of negativity and poor experiences from the customer side, and just this side of sweat shop hell from the employee’s side,(Just watch The Call Centre on BBC TV).  Recent surveys, and no shortage of our own anecdotal evidence, continue to show customer service in the UK getting worse, or at best staying the same.  Despite this the new flagship of customer experience is finding it surprisingly difficult to secure a permanent berth or safe harbour with many companies.

Learning from the best and moving the goal posts

The companies that make customer centricity their defining mantra have succeeded not only financially but also organizationally and reputationally. They do this by treating people with respect, actively recognizing their contributions and providing new opportunities for both personal growth and job satisfaction. This in turn develops engaged and committed employees who are the lifeblood of their organizations. Among the most recognized poster children for great customer experience, and strong and consistent employee engagement, are John Lewis, Metro Bank, Autoglass, Plantronics and Screwfix. Other companies need to learn from their successes and best practices.

But the concept of work and the new breed’s attitudes to it are also changing rapidly. Many people think that the new workforce entrants are lazy, uninspired, demotivated and don’t want a job. In some ways they’re right. They don’t want a job as we know it today, or have known it in the past. They want more. They want to make a difference. They want to use their creative, innovative and technically aware and caring personalities to enjoy what they doing, to demonstrate that in an emotional way and to be able to do that wherever they are, in Starbucks, at home and not necessarily chained to a desk or stuck in an office.

It’s also an ideal time for all these bright young things to showcase their technological wizardry and finally bring many of the laggard companies out of the Luddite closet. While I’ve already stated my view that technology isn’t the natural starting point to fix customer service issues, it is a strong and necessary enabler once the fundamental principles and the best people and innovative practices are in place. 

Making it work – The roadmap for success

So how do we pull all these pieces to together to help us weather this storm and find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? It will take a collaborative effort on the part of business, the educational community, government, and the unlimited talents and unfettered desire of our youth.

  • Firstly, it’s vital that the idea of apprenticeships, or internships, is extended beyond skilled trades and professions to incorporate sales and customer service roles. Whether this is led by government, colleges or industry, it must happen and soon.
  • Then we need to get business and educational bodies together to create the types of apprenticeships and intern programs that go beyond basic customer service courses and provide a broader, more comprehensive business education that not only meets today’s needs but prepares young people for tomorrow’s challenges, regardless of their ultimate role in the company.
  • We need to help businesses and especially HR departments, understand that in our competitive, social media-driven marketplace, customer experience is not just important, it’s imperative. Qualified professionals who can help businesses sustain customer loyalty are in high demand and need to be incentivised appropriately.
  • Academic institutions can and must do more to equip students with education and growth in a meaningful way for both them and the organisations they may join.

In the US, The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) and a consortium of organizations on workforce readiness, recently published surveys on what employers seek in university graduates. The results suggest that students need to hone their skills in:

  • Communication
  • Leadership
  • Professionalism
  • Teamwork/collaboration
  • Problem solving and critical thinking

All of these have obvious benefits in any endeavour, but are of particular and long-lasting value in a customer service environment.

  • Business can help that by investing more time and energy with schools and let Millenials know that their work matters. (As an example, a Bentley intern in a major company loved her summer job because once a week she would visit other departments that used her work. She ultimately learned the impact of her work on the company’s ability to serve its customers, which allowed her to feel valued.)
  • We clearly need to instil optimism and resilience into our young people and show them while there will be challenging experiences (and many customers do have unrealistic expectations), that engaged and emotionally connected customer service people in leading companies make a real difference. Providing opportunities for them to learn and grow with enthusiastic mentoring, cross-functional company experience and emotionally connecting customer interaction skills can do much to achieve that.

So it’s not a short list and in many ways, they’re not necessarily new ideas, especially when it comes to the role of the employer.  In the nineteenth century the best companies played a communal role in their local area. These companies were characterized as those that truly cared for their employees and their spiritual and physical well-being, and provided more than just a job but hope for a brighter future.

Hire for attitude – Train for Skill

The businesses that I noted earlier continue that community tradition and are changing organizational culture by creating a flexible, employee centric approach that is based on real career opportunities, mutual respect and a healthy work-life balance. This approach encourages young people to enter into a very different “contract” and to be able to work in an environment and industry that motivates, inspires and rewards them in more than just financial terms.

These forward-thinking companies are embracing apprenticeships as a way of introducing bright, young new talent into sales and customer service roles.  Johnston Press is one example of an organisation that is actively using this method of staffing for their telesales operation.  Their focus is not on the skills or training the young people have, but on their attitude and levels of commitment.

They have partnered with the Working Knowledge Academy of Sales to ensure the right young people are given real educational rigour around their training to help them deliver from day one on the phones. By giving them the skills they need to do the job before they start, the Academy has had a considerable impact by helping the young people build confidence in the work-place and see positive results quickly.

Johnston Press also recognises the need to coach their new starters.  All apprentices have a mentor and are coached regularly and given development plans beyond their apprenticeship. They are viewed as an “investment” and are given the support they need to succeed. This approach is bearing fruit; the apprentices are delivering against targets and, as importantly, have the right attitude towards selling on the telephone which they genuinely see as a career, not just a stop-gap job.

This is powerful stuff that requires a shift in attitude and mind-set as well a leap of faith from all sides. But most importantly, it also reflects many of the positive aspects and ideas contained in the Allen-Ainley report and that are essential for creating real, secure employment opportunities. Especially as it relates to transferrable skills and the concept of a licence to practice. And it really is worth the effort – just ask Gavin.

I bumped into him again recently and he had just completed a 12 week sales training apprenticeship and was now well into his first year as a sales advisor with a technology company. He told me that this was the first company that treated him as an individual and not only brought out the best of his personal and other skills, but actively encouraged him to share his ideas and infectious enthusiasm with others in different parts of the business. His attitude has changed completely. The apprenticeship program and the support and encouragement of the company has truly opened the door to personal growth, career fulfilment and recognition as a valued and important contributor to his company’s fortunes.

To me the best part of his experience, and framing the the bigger picture, is that we all learn and we all win. Employers get better trained, more engaged and productive employees. Customers are well treated and happier through interacting with people that really care and are empowered to make a difference.  This should lead to a more successful and profitable business and better prospects for all.  Even governments might come out of this looking good. What a turnaround that would be!

This is not just a nice, fluffy idea or government boondoggle. It’s critical to long term business success, individual well-being and social growth. If we get this right we can create a brighter future and a lifetime of opportunity for generations to come. However, it won’t be a smooth ride. For many organizations and senior leaders it will require a shift in culture, attitude and mind-set. But the destination is full of promise and definitely worth the trip.