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The Future of Customer Service Is All in the Relationship

The Future of Customer Service Is All in the Relationship

In the uncertain economy of 2011, are companies hiring for their customer service departments? They are, but only as long as their businesses are expanding.  

Employers are looking for customer service representatives who can bring boundless energy to seemingly endless days of solving problems for customers who aren’t always in the best of moods. And in more and more enterprises, customer service reps are called on to perform nontraditional tasks, some to give revenues an extra boost, others to save on labor costs.

Although the customer service hiring plans of a given company may vary month to month, the long-term trend is solidly up. Over the decade ending in 2018, customer service jobs will increase by 400,000, to 2.65 million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That’s the big picture. Let’s look at some details of what’s driving the market for customer service reps.

Customer Service Hiring Is Tied to Revenue Trends

Michael Alter, CEO of SurePayroll in Glenview, Illinois, puts it plainly: “Our customer service staff is growing because our customer base is growing,” he says. Alter’s 50-plus customer service reps serve the company’s thousands of payroll-service customers.

Employers in many other industries are building their customer service departments, albeit cautiously. “I see activity picking up across the board, particularly [for customer service reps] who work on the phone -- but it’s a slow increase,” says Tony Alessandra, a customer-relationship consultant in Carlsbad, California.

Employment agencies have also seen a rise in demand for customer service reps. “We saw an increase in openings for customer service representatives starting at the end of the third quarter of 2010,” says Jorge Perez, senior vice president of Manpower North America in Milwaukee. “We maintained that pace through the first quarter of 2011. Now we’re seeing some temp positions transition to full time. Organizations seem more comfortable in increasing their fixed labor pool.”

As always, staff-level customer service jobs offer modest to middling compensation. Some customer service jobs come with starting pay close to minimum wage, but the top workers in the highest-paying industries earn more than $46,000 per year, says the BLS. The median salary for a midlevel customer service position is about $36,000, according to Salary.com. “If you’ve spent $150,000 on education, it’s hard to accept $15 to $18 an hour,” says Perez. “But some younger people will be willing to take the job for the experience.”

Customer Service Job Descriptions Vary with the Terrain

Customer service jobs vary more widely than ever now. Some reps mainly take orders for socks or widgets; others are called on to explain complex product and service features, such as treatments covered in a health plan. The responsibilities of a given customer service position may also range widely, especially in small local operations; a recent Monster job posting for a customer service rep with a furniture and electronics rental company describes a job that includes not only traditional customer service responsibilities but also sales, debt collection and heavy lifting.

Another trend of interest to job seekers: Looking for more revenue wherever they can find it, more companies are leveraging their customer service staff to cross-sell and upsell.

Companies Seek Customer Service Reps Who Can Relate

While some employers simply look for customer service workers who can handle the most calls per hour, others give considerable weight to the communications skills and cultural competence of their customer service reps. “Many call centers moved out of the US years ago, and many have come back in the last few years,” says Perez. “Now customer service is about customer satisfaction. Big technology companies need people who understand the culture and are fluent with social media. They want people who can both provide a technical solution and relate to the client.”

Recognizing that many products are mere commodities, some merchants put the emphasis on service. “Many companies recognize that the only difference between them and their competitors is the experience they offer customers,” says Shep Hyken, a customer service consultant in St. Louis. “Some companies don’t care how long the call takes as long as the customer feels good at the end.”

Cultural competence applies to the customer service workplace as well as to client interactions. “The right fit for our culture is hard to find,” Alter says. “We’re looking for people who want to serve others. They have to be excited rather than depressed by people calling with problems that need solving.”

Most employers acknowledge that they’ll have to give their new hires substantial training. But they’ll expect candidates to demonstrate their ability to communicate in the interview. “It’s easier to teach technical stuff than communication skills,” Hyken says.

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