Bill McComb on the Customer Service Lessons Learned From His First Job — At Age 15

Telephone Operators

In a meditation on his first employment, My First Job: How Howls, Screams, and Hangups Set Me Up For Success, Fifth & Pacific Companies, Inc. CEO William McComb reminisces about working, as a fifteen-year-old, for Walker Research, in his hometown in Indiana.  As a telephone survey operator making calls on behalf of the phone company GTE, Bill McComb recalls his invaluable instruction, from a very young age, on active listening, customer service, leadership, and accountability.  He has retained and implemented the universally relevant lessons he learned during the after-school job to this day.

This article, My First Job: How Howls, Screams, and Hangups Set Me Up For Success, is reprinted in full with permission from LinkedIn, where it originally appeared.

I had no idea how lucky I was when, back at age 15, I took a job with Walker Research in my hometown in Indiana. It was my first job, and they were one of the few places that hired “kids” under 16, although most of my colleagues were full time adults. The company — today one of the most respected research houses – conducted market research for clients around the US. At this office, there was one client, the local telephone company, GTE. Unwittingly, I landed in a place that taught me about good management, client services, marketing, research, and consumer behavior — the very basis of my career.

I was one of the many telephone survey “operators” who called and interviewed GTE customers around the country to measure their satisfaction with the services they received. While sitting on the telephone for long shifts was neither pleasant nor stimulating, it was clearly better than most of the alternatives out there. They also paid a good wage.

Very quickly I learned that market research had scientific elements to it. We were trained to deliver questions without introducing bias via our delivery. We had to perfect a certain monotone rhythm, especially when prompting the consumer with the rating scale. I can still recite it: “poor—fair—good—excellent” spoken in deadpan. Supervisors monitored our calls and promptly provided feedback on our delivery — all the time. I had plenty of humiliating sessions with the supervisor. Invariably, I was trying too hard to make the calls interesting for the respondents. I learned that market research isn’t supposed to be interesting; it has to be objective.

We were also trained in taking what they called “action comments,” which is when an interview shifted from market research to customer service, as an irate customer would demand help with an egregious problem. This is where I really soared — during these times, we were allowed to turn back on our personalities, and be empathetic and assuring, while also inquisitive and probing. There were times when people screamed so hard at me it actually became scary. Back then people hated the phone company, so we were targets for some of their rudest behavior. But right then and there I learned first hand the cardinal rule of retailing — the customer is always right.

In fact, I learned a lot from this part-time job. The company was grade A: excellent training, strong shift supervisors and managers, unwavering quality control, and a serious environment where the customer and the client were respected and even revered.

And even though it was, for me, “just an after school and weekend job,” it actually helped foster a lifelong interest in consumer behavior, market research, marketing, and ultimately, branding. Some of the mottos they had printed on posters in their break room forged strong values in me as an impressionable 15 year old: messages about active listening, about the customer being first, about workplace norms, about leadership, about accountability. When I reflect on that job, I realize how much old world wisdom I got from the experience, and I realize I was lucky at 15.

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