That Crappy Job Can Make You Awesome

You can learn a lot from a terrible job.

My own early career was a bit checkered. There was a two-week stint as a telemarketer one summer while I was in college. (Folks, I'm really, really sorry for calling you.)

The first job I had out of college was at a company so painfully mismanaged that it started contracting not long after I joined. I was laid off after just over a year. 

The next company would have laid me off if I stayed there for six more months. The same goes for the one after that; that company went out of business not long after I left.

These were all miserable experiences in their own way. At the same time, I learned many critical lessons that are still valuable today.


Working for a terrible company can be a grueling test.

My first job out of college was a National Account Manager for a company that sold uniforms. Our quality was terrible. It sometimes felt like half the orders we shipped out had an error. These errors aggravated my customers, hurt sales, and caused me personal embarrassment. 

There were many times when I wanted to throw in the towel and either quit or just stop trying. But, I learned that things could get better through hard work and perseverance. I spent time understanding the production process and forming relationships with key people so I could identify the root causes of errors and make sure they didn't keep happening.

Gradually, I got nearly 100 percent of my customers' orders to ship without an error.

Customer service professionals need to be resilient in even the best companies. There's always a new challenge to tackle, and we're often on the receiving end of our customers' frustrations.



One of the worst days in my career was the day my company's CFO told me the company was struggling to make payroll and I needed to lay off about a third of my customer service team by the end of the day.

It was a terrible thing to do, but it also helped me think like an owner and not an employee. I realized that I could have foreseen (and possibly prevented) some of the layoffs if I had done a better job managing labor costs.

That experience taught me how to better translate my customer service plans into dollars and cents and show how service impacted profitability. I became a much better manager as a result.

We can't control everything our company does, but we can often expand our circle of influence more than we realize.



Like it or not, politics are part of every organization.

Terrible companies seem to be extra-political. It often feels like every employee is separately pursuing their own agenda with little regard for cooperation or team-work.

In one company I worked for, I learned the value of developing personal relationships with key people in other departments. Without a personal connection, some departments would flat-out refuse to cooperate with each other. Once I had struck up a genuine friendship with someone, I was able to get things done in an instant.

My friend, Grace Judson, offers a refreshing take on the subject in her book, The Five Deadly Shoulds of Office Politics. She emphasizes the need to empathize with co-workers so we take their needs into account when we are asking them for something.



There are some times when it's not worth sticking around in a terrible job.

In my book, Service Failure, I interviewed quite a few employees who would have been better off someplace else. One person deliberately provided hotel guests with poor service because her co-workers would have ostracized her for providing true hospitality. Another person found himself lying to customers because his boss instructed him to and he was afraid of losing his job.

If your job is like this, get out as quickly as you can.

Until then, learn as much as you can, do the best job you can, and always remember that your customers are still counting on you!

95% of the People Who Read This Won't Get It

I have a challenge for you.

This post describes one of the biggest issues faced by customer service leaders. My prediction is that 100 percent of the people who read this will think they understand, but 95 percent actually won't.

My challenge is to prove to yourself that you're in that elusive five percent who get it. Let's start with a picture:

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

Photo credit: Jeff Toister

I took this picture on the sly.

A colleague and I were eating dinner in an airport restaurant. We had just attended what was then called the American Society for Training and Development's International Conference and Exposition. The woman in the photo had too.

I know this because of two clues.

First, you can see she's reading Keith Ferrazzi's book, Never Eat Alone. Ferrazzi had been a keynote speaker at the conference. His book revolved around the idea that the key to success was building connections with other people.

The second clue was she had the official conference tote bag at her feet. Just like about ten other people in that airport restaurant.

Look carefully and you can tell she doesn't believe what she's reading.

She might agree intellectually. It's a great concept - we can all point to important relationships in our lives that have helped us succeed. But, she wasn't living it. She sat through her entire meal without connecting with anyone else.

That's the issue faced by many customer service leaders.

We tell ourselves we're customer-focused even when we're not. We make the mistake of thinking service is easy or self-evident so we don't put in the effort. We crow about our awesome culture when it's really just an empty slogan (Exhibit A: John Stumpf).

It's why a recent Execs In The Know study found that 79 percent of executives think they're meeting the needs of their customers, but only 33 percent of customers surveyed agree.

Meanwhile, the real work of service doesn't get done. 

Leaders fail to articulate a clear customer service vision. Customers are surveyed, but the data is barely analyzed and rarely acted upon. Training is meager or ineffective. Products are defective and remain that way. Processes are broken and departments operate in silos.

My guess is you're nodding as you read this.

But, how do you know you are truly committed to serving customers? You can find out by taking the challenge.


The Challenge

This challenge consists of one simple question: 

Are you the person in the restaurant?

Obviously, I don't mean literally. I mean, is this picture a metaphor for how you approach customer service or are you fully committed?

Consider a few things before you answer. This person had made some effort. She spent time and money to travel to a conference. She was open to new ideas and struck enough by the speaker's message that she bought his book. After a long week, she was still motivated enough to start reading it immediately after attending.

It's okay to be that person. Just realize that she's not truly committed. 

When Your B Work Is Better Than an A

I never knew marshmallows could be AMAZING until I tried Terra's.

Terra American Bistro is a farm to table restaurant in San Diego. In 2011, they moved to a new neighborhood when their old lease was up. Chef Jeff Rossman used the new location as an opportunity to add a few new touches.

One addition was presenting guests with complimentary house made marshmallows at the end of the meal. The marshmallows were exquisite - a perfect balance of sugar, texture, and a little orange.

Then, just as soon as they appeared, the marshmallows were gone.

The restaurant stopped giving guests marshmallows after just a few weeks. It was the right decision. As you'll see below, sometimes your B work is better than an A.

A's Take More Time

The customer service rep wanted to build rapport with his customer. So, when he learned the customer would soon be visiting his home town on vacation, he suggested a favorite restaurant.

And then, he suggested another. And another. Soon, he was rattling off a whole list of places the customer could try.

The customer appreciated the extra information. Yet, the prolonged conversation prevented the customer service rep from serving other customers who were waiting on hold.

A single restaurant recommendation would have done just as well.

That's the challenge with always shooting for an A in customer service. It takes extra time, and that time can take away from serving other customers. There's almost always a trade-off when you spend extra time on something.

Making fresh marshmallows each day was a time consuming task at Terra. The trade-off was that guests either had to wait longer or the restaurant had to hire extra staff. Part of the reason for moving to a new neighborhood was keeping prices lower, so spending the extra time on marshmallows went against that goal.


A's Cost More

Time is money. If you pay someone to make marshmallows instead of doing something else, that increases the cost of doing business.

Companies wrestle with these decisions all the time.

Should you offer 24/7 service? Invest in a new smart phone app or a new website with all the bells and whistles? Give everyone free shipping? 

Customers might appreciate these touches, but it also increases your costs. Higher costs mean lower profit margins. That's okay if you can make it up in higher volume or improved customer loyalty.

Which begs the question, were the marshmallows driving enough customer loyalty at Terra to justify the added time and cost?


Focus on Value

The short answer to the marshmallow question is no.

They were a nice touch, but that's not the reason people went to Terra. They went for the outstanding food that was expertly prepared with fresh ingredients. They went for the reasonable prices and the friendly service. 

None of those changed when the marshmallows went away.

In their book, Uncommon Service, Frances Frei and Anne Morriss describe the importance of making trade-offs. The key is excelling at what your customers truly value while investing less in places where customers aren't as concerned.

No assigned seating on Southwest Airlines means the airline can offer cheap fares. Slow order turnaround times at In-N-Out Burger mean the chain can make every burger fresh to order. High prices at The Ritz-Carlton mean the hotel can offered exceptional luxury.

So, back to A's and B's. 

Find out what your customers truly value and deliver that. Be careful when going beyond what customers care about so you don't waste time or money.