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 center was perched above the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan on the 8th floor. The place was a collection of characters from all walks of life; most of them with incredible voices and remarkable telephone "personalities".
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 center, 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 thirty-year, amazing journey for me in the call center outsourcing industry. And it all started with a simple 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 center 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.
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 center agent can work their way up to becoming a six-figure contact center 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 center agent believes it’s 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 center agents in the USA and places like the Philippines, India, El Salvador, etc., how their lives have changed, thanks to employment in a call center. 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 center 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 front-line agent. This is a winning formula for success.
And I can’t begin to put a value on the intangible experience of starting as agent and how it shapes and molds your perspective on the industry. It’s not a must-have for ultimate success in the contact center industry, but it certainly is a huge bonus when you can relate to the most important person in the call center - the frontline 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 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 center 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.
The most successful contact centers 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 center industry. And it is at this time that I realize more than ever just how valuable the call center “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.
As a call center outsourcing thought leader and president of CustomerServ, Nick Jiwa is dedicated to helping companies find, select and retain the right call center outsourcing partners. Nick’s expertise and contribution to the call center industry started in 1986 – as a call center agent when the industry was still in its infancy. An avid 80s music buff, proud father and soccer fanatic, Nick is passionate about “anything call center”, giving back to the community, mentoring and helping others win!