Customer Service: A Sense of Mission

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Job satisfaction isn’t something we tend to naturally associate with the position of customer service representative—which is why the team at Kars4Kids is worth a closer look, even if your business doesn’t have a dedicated customer service department.

Burnout isn’t a foregone conclusion for the team working phones at this nonprofit car donation program. One of the reps has, in fact, been with Kars4Kids for seven years. The manager of the customer service team has been on the job for 11 years.

That’s an incredible record, considering the data. These are dedicated customer service people; their sole responsibility is to interact with customers.

Customer service burnout: What the data say

In general, just how bad is the burnout associated with people who work directly with customers? The turnover rate should give you some idea. Back in 2013, turnover for customer service representatives was running at an incredibly high 30 to 45 percent, whereas the average turnover rate of employees for all industries in the United States was 15.1 percent.

Researchers have struggled to understand what might help prevent burnout. More money? Job security? Because if we could only help our customer-facing teams feel good about what they do, the theory goes, it’s likely they’d stick around longer and generate more customer loyalty. There’s generally a limit, on the other hand, to how much an organization can pay people in those roles. That means you’re going to have to find a different way to satisfy those employees so they won’t walk out in a huff.

One research trial found that more important than the money, more important than job security, is that the team member sees  himself as “playing a positive role within the wider organization.” Managers can help with this by keeping the team well-informed about the organization’s mission, even in for-profit companies. The manager can also convey to team members that they are valued and that their contribution is important. Finally, if reps feel they’re benefiting from company practices, they are more likely to feel good about their place of work and stick around a spell.

The right attitude can help prevent customer service burnout

Preventing customer service burnout, in other words, is about attitude. Team member attitude can be influenced by how well management keeps the team in the loop about the bigger picture. At Kars4Kids, this means sharing stories with the customer service team of kids helped by the organization. The customer service representatives come to know that each car donation represents another child mentored, or a scholarship to TheZone, a summer camp focusing on the personal growth of the campers.

Kars4Kids customer service representatives come to an important realization: The job they’re doing? They’re doing it for the kids.

“It does make a difference in my work that what we do helps educate children. I think about this when I’m arranging for a towing company: how can I get the most bang for our buck? Who will give the most money for a car? Who charges the least to tow it away? Because every penny we make is going to educate somebody’s child,” said Kars4Kids customer service representative Jenny White.

White keeps the mission at the forefront of her mind as she works her shifts. When phone calls lead to donations, her feeling that she plays a positive role in the “wider organization” is strengthened.

Alan Guttman, another Kars4Kids customer service rep, says long days can be tiring, but wouldn’t call it “burnout.” “Sometimes, you put in long hours but have a good feeling because you know the reason you’re doing this. It’s for a higher purpose.”

When he feels the work hours dragging, Guttman likes to take a break and watch TheZone’s youtube channel. Parents of campers at TheZone may be too busy working to give their children the attention they need. Independent of anything their parents do, some campers may be shy or angry at the world. At TheZone, however, children can cuddle bunnies for lots of unconditional love, or win a photography competition to bolster self-confidence. It’s the proceeds from car donations that Guttman and other CS reps process that underwrite camp scholarships for these children. “It’s just amazing what they’ve accomplished there. And these are kids that wouldn’t be in a program like that if it wasn’t for what we do.”

Using the business’s mission as inspiration

Guttman is a veteran of the customer service field. Asked if working for Kars4Kids is different, Guttman says perks compensate for drudgery at other places, but at Kars4Kids, it’s the mission that counts. “Look, if someone works at Ford, and gets to the highest level, there are perks at the top. But here there’s an organization that sits behind it that people are committed to on a personal level. When you see and hear the people and the stories that they tell, it just turns your heart and every car is so meaningful because you know you could bring in so much more with every donation.”

If Guttman and White are aware of the wider mission of the organization, it’s clear that management is doing a good job of keeping them informed. Kars4Kids customer service manager Becky Kolodny says, “We get a lot of positive feedback from families who we helped through our many programs. All thank you letters, voicemails, and stories from our families and our volunteers are sent out to everyone, which helps us focus on the ultimate goal of helping children and families.”

Kars4Kids customer service assistant manager Bella Tchiprout agrees that management plays a role in giving a sense of mission to the customer service team. “We definitely let them know how the work they do has a higher purpose: inspirational emails are sent out, and they are encouraged to mention the work we do in their calls.”

In addition to emails, team members may also be invited to a Kars4Kids event where they can interact with the children enrolled in the various programs sponsored by the organization. “Once a year, we also have a brunch where we get to hear the kids we help speak firsthand, and we learn more about the various programs that are funded by the car donations we process. That keeps me going for at least a week or two; makes me feel really good about the work,” said Evelyn Klitnick.

Riki Botton, who works for both the English and Spanish-speaking branches of the customer service team, agrees: “Getting a reminder of the mission at that yearly brunch definitely makes a difference for me for a while.”

Kars4Kids seems to have hit on a winning formula, a two-pronged approach that other teams would do well to emulate, even if their organization or small business doesn’t have a dedicated customer service team.

The Kars4Kids formula:

  1. Keep the team apprised of the organization’s accomplishments and good work
  2. Show them why it matters

The longevity of Kars4Kids customer service representatives does seem to be tied directly to the sense of mission conveyed by management.

For one Kars4Kids customer service representative, however, that sense of mission is personal: customer service rep Deborah Ezrihen actually knows someone who received assistance from Kars4Kids. It is the knowledge that her friend’s children were helped that makes a huge difference in how she feels about her job on a daily basis. “If I feel bored or frustrated, I think of my friends and the assistance they received. It helps. It helps a lot.”

The bottom line

Take time to make sure that your whole team understands and feels connected to your company or nonprofit’s mission. Make sure employees can make the connection between their work and the organization’s mission, whatever their individual role.

Varda Meyers Epstein is a mother of 12 and contributing editor at the Kars4Kids educational blog for parents. Her work has appeared in the Huffington Post, Marketing Profs, and The Social Media Hat. Find her on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.

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