5 Ways to Survive in Customer Service

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantI presented a workshop recently on how to use time intentionally and effectively in your workday, and the audience I spoke to was a mix of people who had autonomy over the way they worked and people who were responsible for responding to customer issues right away. In my talk, I offered a few different tools for them to use in order to work more effectively and feel less overwhelmed: intentionality, rhythm, and flow. After the workshop, I got some tough feedback.

Many of the people who worked in customer service left feeling frustrated and like a lot of what I suggested just wasn't possible for them. They felt like it was out of the question to get into a state of "flow" when they're getting called, emailed, chatted, or talked to at their desk. They felt like they were the last people who could leave the office to take a walk and clear their heads.

While I don't totally agree with those sentiments, I will admit that I missed the mark for them. I could have talked more explicitly about the challenges facing people in customer service-type roles and creative ways to meet them.

Since I can't go back in time and re-do the workshop, I'm going to offer some ideas in a blog post instead.

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantI've worked in a few different customer service jobs, but the most intense, by far, was as a Customer Care representative. My job was to solve some of the gnarliest, messiest, most miserable problems that came up for customers of the company I was working for.

Every day, I would have to reach out to and empathize with angry people. Some of these people were rightfully pissed off, some were just trying to get free work done, and some were just looking for someone to wail on. I got to talk to them all.

My days consisted of managing anywhere from 70 - 100 customer cases. This would entail making phone calls, answering phone calls, responding to emails, trying to come up with solutions with our internal team, and managing vendors who helped us fix problems. When my phone would ring, I would have no idea who was on the other line, but my performance was measured in part by how quickly I answered, so even if I was in the middle of something, I needed to pick up. I'd have a list of priorities for each day that was usually obliterated by the most recent crisis that came up. I had an amazingly supportive manager and team, which was the only reason I lasted as long as I did, but this was the toughest job I've ever had.

There were a few things I did that were helpful, but most of the things I'm going to suggest to you come from my peers, who seemed much more equipped than me to handle the onslaught every day.

Below are five things I wish I'd done differently and that I've seen work for people whose job is to care for customers in need:

  1. Be diligent about how you spend your energy outside of work.
  2. Take regular breaks.
  3. Notice your body.
  4. Let go of the need to fix the system.
  5. Make positive connections at work.

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultant

First, be diligent about how you spend your energy outside of work.

I'm not sure about you, but the customer service roles I've been in have been extremely draining to me. That's not to say they were evil jobs, but they did not energize me. I wasn't aware back then how important it is to manage our energy, and I wish I'd known then that because my job was so draining, I had to be extra, extra, 100% intentional about how I spent my energy away from the office.

If you go from a draining customer service job to a life that also feels draining, you're going to burn out quickly, like I did. You owe it to yourself and everyone around you to make your life outside of work a sanctuary. Don't go to events that feel lifeless to you. Don't meet up with friends who make you feel like shit. Cultivate the things that fill you back up again. If at all possible (and it always is), incorporate a morning ritual that makes you feel grounded and strong before you start your day.

Second, take regular breaks.

Get out of your chair every 90 minutes. You're not going to get in trouble. You will get more done if you leave every hour and a half for 5-15 minutes than you would if you stayed glued to your desk to answer one more call from an angry customer. Get up, stretch, get some water or food, use the bathroom, say 'hi' to Sarah in accounting, and return to your desk remembering that you're a human being.

Third, notice how you feel in your body throughout the day.

You are a spiritual being in a body, and your body has something to say to you when you're stressed out about serving customers. The negative emotions you feel and are exposed to are real, even if you feel like they shouldn't be, and they will get stuck in your body if you don't allow them to move out.

Notice when you're breathing rapidly or shallowly. Notice if there's tension in your back. Notice if you feel sick in your gut. See if you can lovingly bring attention to those areas and allow them to release. If you're on a call with a customer who's totally annoying or rude, hold your heart. Afterward, go to the bathroom and shake it off. Outside of work, get regular movement, even if it's just a walk. Be aware of and protect your body. Let it digest and eliminate the "stuff" you're taking on all day.

Fourth, let go of the need to fix the system you're a part of.

One of the hardest things about my job in customer service was seeing the same issues come up over and over again and having close to zero control over fixing the root of the problem. It drove me nuts. I'd complain to my boss all the time, "But it shouldn't be this way!"

And yet, it was.

Unless trying to fix the system energizes you, let it go. You can notice the issues and keep track of them, but your job is to care for the customer in front of you, and it's not fair to yourself to take on the burden of trying to fix the whole damn process.

megan leatherman career coach and human resources consultantFinally, make meaningful connections with positive people at work.

Customers come and go, but the team you're with day in and day out is mostly there to stay. Value them and treat them with care. Your job will feel much easier and more manageable if you can spend some time building up a network of colleagues who are positive and still have empathy inside of them. Making meaningful connections at work acts like a sort of shield around you, protecting you from some of the emotions coming at you during your job.

Speaking of empathy, that's basically your job: to have empathy for people and then use it to fix problems. 

If the empathy for the customers you serve has completely faded, then you need to find another job. Losing the ability to feel compassion for others, no matter how much of a nuisance they are, is a big, red warning sign that you need to find something that nourishes you instead.

Your job is really, really hard, and it's often undervalued.

That doesn't mean you have to suffer every day, though. If you can focus on these five areas and give yourself permission to take better care of yourself, I think you'll find that you can survive and improve the lives of the people you're there to respond to.

Thank you for everything you do.