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Answer by Jae Alexis Lee, IT support manager:
I’ve helped a lot of agents over the years find the career footing to exit entry-level customer service roles, and there are a few words of advice that I’d give anyone looking to make that transition.
Step 1: Skills assessment
When you’re leaving customer service for other pastures, you really need to start by doing an assessment of what skills you have. In HR speak, we often talk about transferable skills, or the things that you’ve learned to do at one job that can be useful to another job. It’s easy to be blinded by the things that are a routine part of your day-to-day job and to think that those skills aren’t important, but extracting those skills and marketing them will make you significantly more appealing to prospective employers in another industry.
It’s easy to look at a customer service job and say, “I just talk to people who yell at me all day long about things that aren’t my fault but they blame me anyway … ” and to become dejected about the value of your skills, but take a few steps back and look at the things you do without much thought and ask yourself what you can do with that.
Consumer billing specialists routinely juggle several months of invoices, tracking payment histories, service changes, proration, and a number of financial complexities that leave customers bewildered. That’s a useful skill. Technical support specialists frequently find themselves as stand-ins for user training, functioning more as educators than repair people. That’s a useful skill.
So when you’re looking to make a move, the first thing you need to do is take a look at what you do, and then figure out what skills you’ve developed that you can take elsewhere.
Step 2: Look for opportunities to expand your role
Customer service organizations often have a variety of roles that need someone to do work that’s a little bit different from general customer service work. Investing some time and effort in one of these roles can give you an opportunity to further refine the skills you identified in Step 1 and to pick up some additional skills as well.
For some people, that means seeking a defined promotion within the organization: supervisory, advanced technical, trainer, etc. If available, these positions can be a good place to spend a year or two getting yourself ready for an exit. Even without those formal roles, customer service organizations frequently have needs for subject matter experts or people to take on tasks outside the role of customer service representative.
These roles not only serve as opportunities to build transferable skills, but on a résumé, they demonstrate that you have performed at a level that’s been rewarded with some form of advancement. That looks appealing to future prospective employers who will see that you’re motivated to grow.
Step 3: Don’t lose sight of the job you have while preparing for the job you want
I feel like it’s important to mention this. I’ve seen lots of CSRs, when they hit the point just before moving into expanded roles or just after, when they’re really starting to hone the skills to make a successful exit, start to fail at doing the jobs they currently have.
This is the worst kind of short-timer’s syndrome to fall victim to. You’re working hard, doing the things that are going to get you ahead, but in the meantime your existing job duties feel unimportant and become neglected. In some instances, I’ve seen this cost CSRs their promotion into a formal advanced role because their current job performance was considered as part of their evaluation for promotion, and in the worst cases, I’ve seen CSRs fired for spending too much time on things that weren’t their job and not enough effort on things that were.
Failing to stay on top of your current job can turn what would have been an opportunity for growth into everything from a lost opportunity to a bad reference to a lost job.
Step 4: Look for an optimized exit that aligns with your experience
When you’re looking for that step out of customer service, there’s a special set of jobs that allow you to harvest one extra skill: industry knowledge.
Industry knowledge can be part of what makes someone choose you over an equally (or better) qualified outsider and this isn’t something that you should underestimate. Advancement within the same company to a different line of the business is the most obvious example, but there are many other opportunities to leverage what you already know from your time spent in the CSR trenches.
Most CSRs have learned a healthy bit not only about their company’s products and services but about the competitor landscape. You’ve learned about your company’s suppliers and their customers. Aiming your first move at something related to your current position allows you not only to leverage your industry knowledge to get up to speed in a new type of role more quickly, but also lets you see a bigger piece of the puzzle that can be a tremendous asset to your new employer.
Step 5: Don’t sell yourself short
When you finally hit the streets and start circulating that resume, don’t ever sell yourself short. Customer Service Representatives are often underappreciated and it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing special about you when you’re interviewing. Look back at all of those skills we talked about in Step 1, recognize how far you’ve come and how valuable you can be to someone else by using those skills, and don’t ever diminish what you’ve learned in the trenches.
If you can’t see value in yourself, employers won’t be able to see it either. If, however, you can sift through all the things you learned while keeping customers happy and you can extract the gold nuggets of transferable skills, employers will line up to buy what you have to offer.