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!