Lessons Learned from My First Contact Center Jobs

I have the honor of speaking at the NorthEast Contact Center Forum conference in Foxborough, Massachusetts later today.

My first contact center job was in Massachusetts. In fact, I worked at three in total while living in Mass, so this conference is a homecoming of sorts for me. The experience taught me a lot of lessons that are still useful today.

This post is a look back on what I learned from those jobs.

 This is likely what I looked like when I started working on contact centers.

This is likely what I looked like when I started working on contact centers.

Fawcett Energy: Hire the Right People

It was the summer of 1995, and I need a job—fast. 

A job offer fell through at the last moment. Desperate to find a way to pay my rent, I responded to a newspaper ad titled, "Talented Talkers." 

It was an outbound telemarketing job for Cambridge-based Fawcett Energy. My role consisted of cold calling families on Cape Cod and trying to sell them home heating oil. If the person said they didn't have an oil furnace, I next tried to pitch them on a new sealcoating for their driveway. "Gotta keep the boys working in the summer!"

When that struck out, my last pitch was a lawn greening service. It's amazing how many people don't have lawns, or so they say.

The owner, Red Fawcett, took me to lunch on my first day and I remember being impressed with him. He seemed like a successful business person who took an interest in employees.

But I was instantly miserable. Cold calling just wasn't my thing. I cringed before each call.

My first evening on the job, the computer dialed the home phone for one of Fawcett's competitors. Oh boy did I get it good from them. "Hey honey!" said the man who answered the phone to his wife. "Some kid from Fawcett is calling us. Do we need a new home heating oil supplier?!" 

I heard peels of laughter before they hung up on me.

The biggest lesson I learned is you need to hire people who will love to do what you ask them to do. A lot of people are like me in that they end up working in a contact center just because they need a job.

A coworker seemed like a natural. He shrugged off each rejection knowing it was just a matter of time before he got a sale. He was the type of person Fawcett needed to hire, not me.

Fortunately, I soon landed a three month contract doing market research for a company in Dublin, Ireland and left Fawcett after just two weeks. 

 

Aramark Uniform: Build Relationships & Be Resourceful

Two years later, I landed a job as a national account manager for Aramark's uniform division, located in Norwell.

My job was to grow sales within my assigned accounts and handle any customer service issues. We were also part of an inbound phone queue, so new customers calling our general line would get routed to whichever account manager happened to be available.

Here I learned the value of building relationships.

We were plagued by long lead times, uneven quality, and high prices. I had to soothe a lot of angry customers at first. Eventually, I learned how to anticipate my customers' needs and find ways to prevent problems and keep them happy.

I also built internal relationships, making friends in accounting, finance, merchandising, and other departments. This was essential because the fastest way to get things done was often to go straight to the person doing it. 

Resourcefulness was another lesson. 

Our factory embroidered logos on uniforms for customers. We had a minimum order size of six since our smallest machine handled six at a time. The production team wanted to maximize efficiency, but this also meant turning away a lot of small orders.

This was a problem for me, since my biggest account had many small offices that only needed one or two uniforms at a time. The solution I pitched to the production team was to hold orders from multiple locations for an extra day or two until we had enough to meet the minimum. This kept both my customers and the production team happy.

Unfortunately, long lead times, quality issues, and high prices caught up with the company. Quite a few of us were eventually laid off.

 

Chadwicks of Boston: Experiment

Training was my passion, and Chadwicks represented an amazing opportunity.

Two weeks after getting laid off from Aramark, I found myself managing the training team for two contact centers, one in West Bridgewater and the other in Taunton.

This was during the dark ages of contact center management, when every interaction was tightly scripted and the most important metric for agents was talk time. Employees knew they would get in trouble if their average call length went too long.

Fortunately, my boss let me try new experiments to see what worked.

One of my first projects was to re-write our new hire training curriculum. I had heard about some accelerated learning techniques, such as whole-task training, and I convinced my boss to try them out. We immediately saw decreased training time and improved performance.

Another project focused on getting our sales agents to offer a branded credit card to pre-approved customers. The average acceptance rate was just 5 percent at the start of the project.

Some agents were successful on 40 percent or more of their pitches, so I decided to see what they were doing differently. Those lessons helped us quickly boost the acceptance rate from 5 to 20 percent.

 

Applying Lessons Learned

A colleague once remarked, "There's a big difference between having twenty years of experience and having one year experienced twenty times."

Her point was that we should all be learning from our daily experiences. We risk getting stuck in a rut and watching the world pass us by if we don't.

I continue to share a lot of these stories and examples today, while continuing to learn from my new experiences as well.

If you are attending the conference, please make sure you say "Hi." It will be great to see you there.