Why you should care

Hey, liberal arts grad: Tech stardom is now within reach.

There are a few things you can expect to never hear in a career counselor’s office at an elite college or university: “McDonald’s is hiring,” “Think about street cleaning — it’s good for society” and “Call centers really aren’t that bad.” Indeed, Christina Dao’s counselor never said any of those things to her. But it still happened.

No, she’s not flipping burgers or playing mommy for millions of trash tossers. After graduating, Dao landed a gig answering an onslaught of emails and phone calls at Tuft & Needle, a Phoenix-based startup that sells mattresses. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Less than a year later, the 25-year-old has moved up the ladder — she now works on expanding to growth markets with the operations and supply chain team. “I got my foot in the door, and now I’m in a spot that’s really good for my future,” she says.

The job that was once notorious for being outsourced by cost-cutting companies is experiencing a rise to renown, mostly and especially in the new tech economy. With buyers overwhelmed by the number of businesses vying for their attention and dollars, managers, at least in the booming tech sector, are pulling out all the stops to please them — or maybe their products just have a lot of problems. With greater sway within the company — Sheryl Sandberg, after all, once oversaw customer service at Google — and the chance to learn ever-important people skills and understand the product inside and out, customer service reps are getting damn good experience. In fact, to Louis Song, co-founder of the recruiting firm Proven, it sounds a lot like the making of a successful entrepreneur: “As a CEO, you’ve really got to understand who your customers and employees are, always ask questions, listen, learn and empathize.”

They are on the front lines.

 

That’s good news for recent grads, about 17 percent of whom are underemployed (which means they’re either jobless or working part time and hunting). Not only can dealing with peeved customers pay the bills and claw away at the pile of debt accumulated on the path to graduation — approximately $28,000 on average — but it can also lay out a path to other jobs. Or, it could be a career itself. Take Vincent Leguay, now 37, who arrived at British car-sharing service BlaBlaCar already looking toward the next step beyond customer service. To his surprise, he says, “I liked it too much to leave.” Though he won’t say exactly how much he makes, it’s enough to support a family of three in Paris, one of the world’s most expensive cities, he says. That was three years ago.

Of course, most companies that are upping customer service’s rep — renaming it customer “experience” or “success,” even “member advising” — are children of the current tech boom. That means beyond the stretch of flatland between San Francisco and San Jose, California, and a few select metropolises, customer service may not have caught fire yet. “I haven’t heard any buzz about it being hot” in Seattle, says Suresh Kotha, a professor of entrepreneurship at the University of Washington. And even in Silicon Valley, those jobs might not be around if the bubble bursts.

Customer service reps probably don’t have time to think about bubbles between playing therapist to bent-out-of-shape customers and technology 101 teacher to everyone else. Song estimates a busy rep could be taking upward of 10 calls an hour. At a rep’s starting salary of approximately $40,000 a year, that’s only $2 per call, before taxes. Companies like Tuft & Needle have made the process more enjoyable by using email and chat, and, more important, by incorporating feedback right into new product development. It’s so important, in fact, that customer service shifts are mandatory for all T&N employees, not just the newbies. “[Reps] are on the front lines,” says Jeff Shah, director of support operations for Etsy, a peer-to-peer marketplace.

The T&N team of five reps have free rein to thrill, too. When a customer sent in a photo of her daughter pretending to be a princess and using the mattress box as a castle, Dao turned around and bought the girl a Frozen tiara and wand — no permission from supervisors needed. Superfluous, maybe, but Evan Maridou, director of operations at T&N, says that $20 bought the company invaluable loyalty.

For now, customer experience remains a passion of emerging companies, mostly in tech. And if it takes time for bigwigs to get on board, says Leguay, customer service reps who feel offended should heed their own advice: “Don’t take it personally.”

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