The accidental call centre career

How working in a call centre lead to an unexpected career

The article below by Nick Jiwa might be USA focussed but the sentiment here in Australia is the same.

For many people, call centres are the first taste of working life for many Australians.

A place where they can ‘cut their teeth’ and learn a range of business skills like communicating with customers, using multiple computer systems, understanding the mechanics of how businesses operate along with skills such as learning to work with colleagues, how to adhere to rosters and settling into the expectations of participating in a professional workplace.

Whilst this may be a transient job for many while they are studying, travelling or pursuing other career choices,  there are many people who have decided to ‘hang around’ and carve out a successful call centre career.

The constant energy, the mix of staff, technology and customer challenges and the feeling of ‘making a difference’ are all highly addictive components for many choosing to stay within the contact centre industry.

Throw in some great salaries, international travel opportunities and a skill set that is in high demand and its not hard to see why for many, it is a serious career option to consider.

Yes, it might be a while before kids at school are dreaming of their call centre career but I for one and incredibly grateful for the opportunities it has afforded me.

As a kid who had no real idea what I wanted to do when I grew up, I too fell into contact centres and am forever grateful for it. Nick’s article below was a great reminder of just how amazing the journey can be.

Cheers, Justin (editor of CX Central)

The accidental career path of call centres

It was June of 1986, the Dow Jones was hovering at 1,800 and Ronald Reagan was President.

I had just graduated from high school and a buddy of mine referred me to a “part-time job” in Manhattan. Sure, why not? Extra money, save up before college in the fall, working in the big city… sign me up!

The call centre was perched above the Chelsea neighbourhood of Manhattan on the 8th floor.

The place was a collection of characters from all walks of life; most of them with incredible voices, conducting legitimate commerce on behalf of iconic brands and big corporations.

Week 1 – I hated it.

Talking to people on the phone all day, helping them to decide what product or service to buy seemed utterly monotonous and quite foreign to say the least. Every day in the centre, I was watching the clock constantly; eagerly anticipating quitting time, longing to hear the mellifluous sound of the punch card machine indicating that my seat on the F train home to Queens awaited me.

But I hung in there and persevered. In truth, the paycheck was pretty good and I sat in an air-conditioned office with a few hundred other “dreamers”.

I felt like the industry was calling out to me. Summer turned into fall and I kept on going part-time.

That turned into a promotion to supervisor, then other positions in the upward pecking order presented themselves and the next thing you know, I’m a manager of sorts; training, coaching and helping people twice my age.

It was strange and at times I felt out of place because of my youth and naiveté. But the promotions kept coming, along with raises.

I was doing well in school and life was pretty good for a guy from very humble beginnings.

That fateful decision in 1986 has turned into a 30 year, amazing journey for me in the call centre outsourcing industry.

And it all started with an innocuous job referral.

My story is like that of so many others who got their start the same way.

In truth, I didn’t set out to be a contact centre executive and outsourcing leader. It just happened, and I’m so glad it did.

Quite often I am asked what the secret to my success is.

I believe there are several key factors, but the one that stands out most to me lately is my ability to be humbled by my career roots.

From aspiring agent to prosperous entrepreneur.

You and I both have colleagues and friends who went from entry-level agent to higher heights in management, executive leadership and even entrepreneurship like yours truly.

People who never thought that a long and fruitful career was possible in an industry that is often misunderstood and unfairly maligned.

Is a call centre career really achievable?

We tell agents today that a career path is possible but I’m certain that we don’t reinforce the message enough.

We are fortunate to be in a business where a $12/hour call centre agent can work their way up to becoming a six-figure contact centre executive tomorrow; running workforce management, client services, marketing, sales, IT, operations, and the list goes on and on.

It’s possible, realistic and attainable.

Not pie-in-the-sky, as many naysayers may think.

But I don’t think that the average call centre agent believes its possible because we’re not underscoring and affirming the career path journey enough.

Agents, team leads, supervisors etc., all need to embrace the idea that this is a very special industry in which the dream of upward mobility is within reach. And you don’t need an Ivy League degree to get there.

Heck, sometimes you need no more than tenacity to grab onto the proverbial brass ring.

Just ask the millions of call centre agents in the USA and places like the Philippines, India, El Salvador, etc., how their lives have changed, thanks to employment in a call centre.

And have you seen the look on an agent’s face when they’’re tapped on the shoulder for a raise and promotion?

Our industry changes lives for the better. And yet, we can do a much better job as an industry, in celebrating the career path achievement of so many.

We are not thinking about how the contact centre marketplace, from a career standpoint, is a meritocracy in which success is attainable by everyone, from all walks of life.

Don’t just give agents and other employees lip service about advancement.

Instead, demonstrate it by having them talk to others who have ascended the org chart by working hard, listening, learning and executing with determination and resolve.

Include guest keynoters at your monthly staff meetings.

This is the finest grade of motivational speaker out there!

We all know that the climb up this ladder can be a fast and furious one if you embrace the industry and devote yourself to all the good that it offers. I’m fortunate to work with some organizations in which 70% of their management team was promoted from a frontline agent.

This is a winning formula for success.

What it takes for a career in call centres

And I can’t begin to put a value on the hard-earned, intangible experience of starting as an agent and how it shapes and moulds your perspective on the industry.

It’s not a must-have for ultimate success in the contact centre industry, but it certainly is a huge bonus when you can relate to the most important person in the call centre – the agent.

My career path choice was a true accident. Fortuitous as it was, I had no clue that I was one of many thousands of frontline agents on the vanguard of a burgeoning industry.

How could I possibly know?

In the mid-to-late 1980s, the concept of commerce via telephone was as new as self-driving cars are today or social media was just a few years ago.

We often joke and self-deprecate about how many of us achieved contact centre industry “lifer” status.

In truth, I wouldn’t trade it for anything because the industry has been “very, very good to me” as the legendary, yet fictional baseball player Chico Escuela once said about the game.

Now, remember that our agents are the pillars of our organizational success.

However, the management staffers that coach, guide, direct and teach them on a daily basis are the influential and vital keys that keep these “moving parts” well-oiled, happy and less likely to leave the company.

Great call centres foster success

The most successful contact centres are the ones who have encouraged the growth of their agents into managers and executives.

They themselves understand the rewards of moving from an agent seat into a very satisfying, higher paid position – and who just as importantly, understand what an agent’s daily grind is like.

They will mentor based on their own life-experiences; adding more of the perks that strengthened them and taking away the stresses that caused them the most frustration.

On top of that, promoting from within ensures operational continuity, industry knowledge and an existing comfort level in terms of the company culture.

Couldn’t be simpler.

So it is here and now that I celebrate more than thirty years in the call centre industry.

And it is at this time that I realize more than ever just how valuable the call centre “ladder-climb” is.

I urge all leaders in this industry to challenge the boundaries of the occupational path within their companies and reinforce the possibilities that lie in wait for every agent willing to put in the hard work.

Everyone wins…!

Published with permission from Nick Jiwa.

Recommended article: 6 Tips when starting a new call centre job

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About Nick Jiwa 2 Articles

Nick Jiwa is a tenured contact centre outsourcing veteran and the Founder of CustomerServ - a trusted adviser specialising in creating the perfect match between companies that need outsourcing services with elite contact centre service providers.

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