“Thank you for calling XYZ Company. How may I help you?”
When you call a company and need help, chances are you’re going to reach a friendly voice on the other line. Although many people don’t like calling customer service lines because they fear they will be put on hold, only to struggle to be understood by a representative who works overseas, the fact is that many companies have improved their customer service capabilities and are focused on giving their customers a good experience. Whether callers need to ask questions about a product or service, get clarification on billing or make a complaint, they expect to talk to someone who has the skills and tools available to make the interaction a pleasant one.
With that in mind, the definition of a customer service agent is someone who provides support to customers and creates a positive and productive experience. He or she is more than someone who just answers the phone Given that customer expectations for services are increasing – one Harris Poll indicated that 82 percent of executives believe customer expectations are higher than they were just six years ago – it’s more important than ever that customer service agents offer friendly, personable service quickly and accurately.
What Is a Customer Service Agent?
In the simplest terms, customer service agents provide service to customers, either in person or over the phone. They will answer calls, collect customer information and inquire about the specific reason for the call. Once the customer explains his needs, the agent will take the necessary steps to solve the problem. However, a customer service representative’s responsibilities often extend beyond the actual process of helping customers. They are part of the face and the brand of the company, and their ability to engage customers and solve problems quickly and satisfactorily can be a significant contributor to the customer’s overall perception of the company. Sometimes, all it takes is a single positive interaction with customer service to completely change someone’s view of the company – and vice versa. In fact, according to the Small Business Administration, 68 percent of customers will leave a business if they're treated poorly. Therefore, agents have a responsibility to understand the company’s products and service thoroughly, as well as the standards for service.
The majority of a customer service agent’s day is spent ensuring that customers have a positive experience with your company. Depending on the business, this might include taking orders, checking on the status of orders, answering questions, solving problems and handling complaints. For example, a customer service agent for a retail company might take calls from customers who want to place, change or cancel orders, which might involve answering questions, providing information about stock availability and processing payments. An agent working for a travel provider, such as an airline, is likely to spend her days helping customers book or change travel plans, and addressing problems that arise, such as rescheduling cancelled flights. Sometimes customer service agents get calls that are easy to manage, such as a customer who simply wants to change account details, while other calls may be more challenging. A tech support agent, for instance, might get a call from a frustrated and angry customer who needs help with a tricky computer issue, and the agent must walk the customer through a series of complex steps to fix it – while still remaining calm and courteous.
Some customer service agent jobs are sales based, meaning the agents are responsible for selling products and services or ensuring that customers continue to purchase products. One example of a sales-based customer service role involves individuals who work for companies offering product or service subscriptions. If customers call to cancel their subscription, the customer service agent is responsible for enticing the customer to change his or her mind. The agent might point out features the customer should try, ask questions to troubleshoot issues or offer incentives to keep the person as a customer. In these positions, agents often earn a bonus or commission for every customer they “save” from leaving the company.
Other sales-based customer service jobs involve outbound calling to sell products and services to people over the phone. Insurance companies, for instance, may hire agents to follow up on customer leads and set appointments. Companies might also give customer service reps incentives to upsell those who call to place orders or ask questions.
Customer Service Work Environment
Customer service agents often work in call centers, but may also provide assistance in person; for example, shoppers in a mall may be directed to customer service for information, while travelers might work with a customer service agent in an airport for assistance with lost luggage or flight issues. However, the majority work in a call center environment. These jobs generally require answering a high volume of calls every day, and agents may even have to meet quotas for the number of calls they take or handle calls within an allotted amount of time. The environment can become stressful, particularly during periods of high call volume or when you have to deal with a higher than average number of upset customers.
While some customer service agents work during standard business hours, many businesses offer 24-7 access to customer service. Therefore, representatives may work overnight or on weekends, as well as on holidays. Many companies will pay those working the less desirable shifts a higher hourly rate.
To focus on continuous improvement, many businesses will provide ongoing training and support for customer service reps. Those working in call centers can expect to have calls recorded and evaluated, while follow-up surveys and questionnaires are also used to measure performance and identify areas for improvement. Raises and bonuses are typically based on performance, so customer service agents are often focused on learning and improvement.
Customer Service Representative Skills
Although the Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that most employers don’t require a college degree for customer service agents, the majority do prefer that candidates have at least a high school diploma or GED. Some employers do prefer agents to have an associate’s degree in business or a related subject, while those involved in specialized areas, such as technical support, look for people with experience and training in that area. Most agents receive on-the-job training, which typically involves learning how to use the company phone and computer systems, company policies, and expectations regarding customer interactions and outcomes. Many companies will record actual calls with customers to use for training purposes, and in some cases, retraining if you aren’t meeting expectations.
Generally speaking, employers are less concerned with a customer service agent’s formal education than they are with whether applicants have the personal attributes that allow them to be successful in this field. Some of the attributes employers look for include:
- A positive attitude. Customer service representatives often have to work with customers who are disappointed or even angry, and they must be able to remain positive and professional at all times.
- Creative problem solving. Customers often reach out to customer service because they have questions or problems, and agents must be able to find solutions. While in many cases they will know exactly what to do based on company policies and procedures, there may be times when they have to think creatively and find other solutions.
- Patience. Working with the public and dealing with other people’s issues all day – and yes, often getting treated poorly – can be exhausting, and it’s easy to become frustrated or irritated with customers. However, it’s important to remain calm and positive at all times and not give in to the impulse to get angry. Being able to manage your emotions and remain patient and calm even in the face of an irate customer is an important skill.
- Excellent communication. It probably goes without saying, but great customer service agents have exceptional communication skills. They are able to answer questions clearly and practice active listening in order to truly understand what customers need and how to provide the best service.
- Empathy. The best customer service agents are those who are able to put themselves into customers' shoes and understand exactly what they want and need. When customers get the sense that companies don’t care, they are going to take their business elsewhere. When they get great service and feel understood, they are more likely to remain as customers.
Customer Service Salary and Job Growth
According to PayScale, the median annual salary for a customer service agent at the time of publication is $36,612, or $13.52 per hour. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports similar earnings, with a median salary of $32,890 per year, or $15.81 per hour. This means half of customer service agents earned more, and half earned less. The highest paid 10 percent of agents earn more than $26.12 per hour, while the lowest paid 10 percent earn less than $10.27 per hour. In some cases, hourly earnings may be increased by bonuses and commissions; according to PayScale, on average, customer service representatives earn an additional $3,000 per year in extra compensation.
Customer service agent salaries are also influenced by the industries in which they work. According to the BLS, the highest-paid customer service reps work in wholesale trade and earn $18.06 per hour, followed closely by those in the insurance industry, who earned an average of $17.57 per hour. The retail trade has the lowest paid agents, earning an average of $12.37 per hour.
One thing that doesn’t influence the pay of customer service agents is their experience. While there is a slight positive correlation between years of experience and salary, PayScale reports that there is only about a 15 percent difference in pay between entry level agents and those with 20 years or more of experience. On average, entry level agents earn about $28,000 per year, and experienced agents earn $35,000 per year. That being said, it is rare to find a customer service agent with that much experience, as most move on to other positions, or into management roles, as they gain experience in the field.
The BLS projects a 5 percent growth rate in customer service by 2026, which is slightly slower than average. Much of the growth will be in call centers – the BLS predicts that 36 percent of all new jobs in customer service will be in these centers as businesses shift sales and service operations to consolidated centers. Many companies are opting to outsource their customer service operations to a professional services company to free up staff for other projects or because they aren’t able to provide excellent service on their own.
However, the industry is also likely to be affected by companies switching to internet-based and voice-response self-service systems. As more customers are able to solve problems themselves without actually speaking to someone, the need for customer service agents will decline. Many businesses are trimming down their customer service departments, keeping only a portion of the staff to handle queries that cannot be managed by the self-service options.