Friday, January 27, 2017

Bloom Where You're Planted

“If you tell me to call that eight hundred number in Ohio, I swear I'll jump over this counter and wring your neck,” said the blonde soccer mom.

This level of anger and type of personal interaction was de rigeur every day at the mobile phone company I worked for a year out of college. Being a front line customer service representative was awful and so draining. I didn't have a vision yet for what I should be doing (writing), so I stumbled along for months. I wore out the managers-on-duty with my requests for them to break the news to customers: your phone is out of warranty.

Finally, one day one of them said, “You've got to do this on your own.”

Some time later, I found this watch, which reads “Bloom Where You Are Planted.” I bought it and wore it to work. It became my mantra. I was determined to grow in this position.

Without calling it this at the time, I used my words to improve my circumstances. I devised scripts that could help me deliver bad news to customers. I learned how to reframe their situations, to tell them what I could do, what their options were, while also setting the boundaries of the company's policies.

As luck would have it, the scripts worked. Once I'd tested them and refined them, I shared what worked with my colleagues. It gave me a surge of pride when I heard one of my meeker co-workers using my words.

This high-stress, low-pay job is where I began finding my voice and learning to navigate how to operate without freezing in conflict.

One day toward the end of my tenure in this position I called the next number and a man approached my terminal. “I have been fighting my bill over the phone for hours without any success. I'm just warning you, I'm not leaving until this gets fixed.”

He thought he was threatening me, but he hadn't met the soccer mom.

“Well, you haven't worked with me yet, pull up a chair and let's get to work.”

The company had put an erroneous $300 charge on his bill. Call center folks had told him to pay the bill and he'd be credited later. Stellar customer retention plan. Wisely, the customer wasn't agreeing to that conflict resolution strategy.

Together we poured over months' worth of bills. I called my colleagues in the call center and began advocating for this man.

“I'm authorized to give a credit of $25,” said one person after I'd explained the situation.

“Well, clearly that's not going to work, the error is $300,” I said. “I need to speak to your manager.”

I explained the scenario to the next person. When I received more push back about crediting the high amount, I said, “Look, we made the error, not the customer. If we don't correct the error, he's going to close his account and tell everyone he knows about his dissatisfaction with our company. That will cost us a lot more than the $300 we rightfully should be crediting his account. The error is OURS.”

There was a pause.

The manager returned to the line. “If you'll refresh your screen, you'll see the $300 dollars has been removed from the account.”

“Thank you so much. This was the right thing to do.”

The customer left satisfied and still a customer. I left my shift feeling proud of my day's work. I had come a long, long way.

I have the opportunity to talk to high school students about my career path—my achievements, failures, and my experiences, in a few weeks. I'm excited to share a less familiar career success story: how seemingly aimless jobs can be the building blocks of a solid professional life. Those miserable face-to-face interactions with cell phone customers honed skills that I have used at every job since.

Not long after that two-hour customer interaction, I left the company, exhausted, and returned to nanny for the family I cared for the year before. Again, not a pleasant experience, but fertile ground for more learning opportunities. I'll gather up some of those stories and share them soon.

I'm sifting through my personal items and the stories attached to them. I'm deciding what I want to keep and what I can let go of.  The lessons of tenacity, perseverance, as well as knowing when enough is enough are firmly planted in my head and heart. Not only did I bloom where I was planted, I grew out of the space. I've replanted myself in places with bigger space for dreaming and becoming more of myself. I don't need this watch anymore. The watch served me well.


  1. Julie, I think my 20 yr. old son might need to hear some of your stories. He's not sure what he wants to do with his life. He's working part time at Panera, but he doesn't see it as helping him in figuring out what he wants to do. I like your assessment here "how seemingly aimless jobs can be the building blocks of a solid professional life." I think I'll share your words. Maybe they will encourage him. :) Blessings to you!

  2. I always say that I think everyone should work in customer service at some point so they realize what it's like to be on the other side of that counter!