Losing Sight of the Specific: Lessons from Customer Service

It’s no secret that I work in customer service. I love it, actually. There’s nothing more fulfilling than helping someone else, especially when you are able to turn their terrible day into something not quite so bad. It’s powerful work, but it’s also a source for intense humility. You are at someone else’s service. You could get it wrong. And it takes a lot out of you.

Think about any bad experience you’ve had with customer service. Likely, it was bad because it felt like the person you were talking to wasn’t really interested in helping you–you were just one more caller asking for help. One more question, a faceless inquiry.

I won’t lie. It’s difficult to remain positive when you’re at someone else’s service all day. You face the limits of your own knowledge and patience. You’re not always treated like a real person–just a means to an end. It’s so easy to lose your sense of perspective and to let little things annoy you when you’ve become just another faceless helper. It’s easy to get caught up in your own agenda: to be liked, to be respected, to be right.

My theory is this: when we lose our ability to think in specific terms, we lose our compassion.

I live in a world where I need examples every day. Something went wrong in the software I support, and I need to see the place it happened, the circumstances in which it happened. I need to investigate specifics and reproduce errors. As a result, every case that comes my way is about something specific. Even when I’m asked about a general concept, it’s never really about something general; it’s always about how the general applies within a certain context.

This isn’t true just for the tasks I perform, it’s also true for how I go about my work.

Though I can think about what it feels like to be frustrated generally, I don’t know what frustration really feels like–and how it changes me–until I am frustrated. I don’t know what it means to be angry, not really, at least. I only know what it means to be angry at someone in particular. I don’t know what it means to love in a general sense, either. But I do know what it means to love someone specifically.

In the world of customer service, I strive never to lose sight of the fact that I’m speaking to someone who is their own person. I’m not talking to “a customer,” I’m talking to a particular individual. Just like I am not “just a customer service rep,” but a particular person. When I lose sight of the fact that I’m talking to a specific someone–with their own strengths, loves, and fears–that’s when I start to lose my patience and push my own agenda.

I’m someone who has decided to spend her working days helping people. But I also hope I can help people remember that the world isn’t filled with general concepts. It’s filled with specificity.

Every day I need to engage the particular, to love the specificity around me, and to try to help others do the same.

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