Why Learning Customer Service Is Important and Relevant- Even for Academia

I don’t know how many of you are using LinkedIn (although you should be—see our great post by Emily Schwarz for tips to get started) but I’m a big fan. Particularly of the articles they occasionally promote via email. It’s what I would describe as “procrastination light”—you’re on social media, but its work related so… that’s fine right? I think that still counts as work? Right?…

Anyway… the most recent series was “think back to your first job,” and basically asked those far more successful than most what they wish they had known before their first, first day. Not exactly a groundbreaking topic, but what interested me was that almost everyone on the list mentioned some sort of customer service related story. Whether scooping ice-cream or waiting tables, customer service—and the importance of understanding that dynamic—tended to be what people took from those experiences.

Customer service is about having the person you’re helping leave the encounter a) feeling happy and b) with what they came for. The mix of those two factors will vary (sometime considerably) depending on what you’re doing. For example, no one likes going to the DMV, but if you walk out with a driver’s license you generally consider it a win. Whether that encounter was a “success” (for you and whoever helped you) probably depended on customer service.

Balancing how much you go out of your way to help someone depends on lots of things, but ultimately comes down to how much you can accommodate before you stop doing your job. Where you’re going to draw your service line. My old co-workers used to call it “the sample cup line.”

(We worked in frozen yogurt. In a college town. And when you work in frozen yogurt in a college town what you get is a bunch of undergraduates in sororities and fraternities hanging out and trying to eat a quart full of yogurt in tiny sample cup portions. I understand that this is a very specific analogy but you get what I’m saying.)

As graduate students, I’m not sure how many of you have had non-academic jobs (although I hope most of you have) and if so, whether or not front-line customer service was an important aspect of your position. But if you haven’t… well you might want to get something part-time this summer because I’m pretty sure that understanding customer service is what separates the successful from the misanthropic.

And yes, I am implying (heck, outright saying) that misanthropic people are unsuccessful.

The cranky, absent-minded professor might be a stereotype, but it’s not one you should be looking to fill. Because while it might seem that of “all the professions, in all the world”, being a professor might give you the most leeway on behavior and interacting with other humans, I assure you that it’s not true. Ask a department chair—no one wants the person who doesn’t know how to play nice to be a permanent part of their community.

And customer service (and sports- but that’s another post…) teaches you how to be a part of a community and interact with others while meeting a set of stated goals. The trick is how to then translate that skill to other professional agendas.

Work is about accommodating people, assisting them, while still prioritizing and accomplishing your own goals. And truly successful people understand and manage that balance in ways that serve the missions of their employers and themselves.

I’m still working on this. It’s hard. And it’s going to be even harder for those of you who are going to have to balance classes of students, tenure reviews, and colleagues, so make sure you start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

Any of you have any “first job” advice that’s helped you succeed?

  • Dewis Shallcross, Director of Student Development, GSAS ‘14

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