How My Customer Service Background Helps Me as a Leader
Learn what Jenn Eaton, VP of Operations, has learned about leadership at Time4Learning.
I started my career in the accounts receivable department of an appliance wholesaler believing it was a good job. Once I had mastered the basic responsibilities, I realized that the work did not feel meaningful to me. Through a personal connection, I heard Time4Learning was hiring, so I left my bookkeeping job to join Time4Learning both as a career opportunity and because it sounded like they had a real purpose beyond just doing business. That sounded exciting to me.
I started my Time4Learning journey by answering customer phone calls and emails. In fact, other than the President who had been handling those, I was the only person in a customer support role. I got to help the customers with answers to questions that we had seen before, but I also had new customer situations emerging daily.
At Time4Learning, I was encouraged from the start to not just deal with the expected, but to also identify problems and suggest remedies. This change in expectations was new for me because I had to make sure I was taking initiative and showing leadership.
So there I was, having stepped into a new company and a new industry for me, in a role I had very little experience with, working directly with the Founder/President. I was finding it to be a much more challenging job than I had worked before, especially considering that my previous work was essentially following instructions and not making mistakes.
This was, at the time, a panic-inducing challenge. I had never thought about trying to take on problem-solving myself, so feeling challenged and intimidated was an understatement as I was completely out of my comfort zone.
Bringing Lessons from my First Job to Time4Learning
To my surprise, the easiest part of the job was building relationships with our customers. I noticed that rather than quickly answering their first question, I could start by asking follow-up questions and by engaging in discussion, defusing whatever frustrations they were experiencing. I learned that even if I didn’t have an immediate solution for them, they felt satisfied because they felt heard and understood.
I felt vulnerable in these discussions in that they had real questions which in many cases, I had no simple answer for. I didn’t have all the answers and gracefully admitted when I didn’t. I was amazed at how well that was accepted. They appreciated my honesty and always seemed surprised when I kept my word and responded back in a timely fashion.
One comment I would often hear: “It’s so nice to call a company and actually speak to a person who genuinely cares.” That’s the kind of support we strive to provide.
Another striking point to me, in retrospect, is how much I learned about homeschooling by talking to those members. I had a lot to learn about homeschooling; as such, I took every chance I got to speak to those that called in, asked them in-depth questions, and therefore learned about homeschooling through their stories.
Leading Means Listening and Discussing
Through the years, I’ve changed roles many times and hired and managed many dozens of employees. There have been tons of successes but of course also plenty of bumps along the way. While it hasn’t always worked, I’ve found that by listening and discussing issues with colleagues - much like I did with frustrated customers - I was able to improve a situation which led to more highly motivated and successful team members. Making sure associates are listened to and appreciated has been key to keeping our productivity and job satisfaction high. It’s time-consuming but a very satisfying part of my job, and I find it very gratifying when I teach my first-level managers to use the same approach with their teams.
I’ve been surprised that as a Vice President in the company, I seem to constantly be deploying the same set of skills that I learned when I was working with customers. Whether I’m dealing with product management or engineering, I find that most seemingly impossible choices and tense situations get diffused by some combination of learning about the other department’s issues and talking through why I feel that from a customer support point of view, a certain course of action is a priority.
Even after 16 years at Time4Learning, my job continues to be a very rewarding experience in many ways. From my own professional growth, to applying the same high expectations of professional growth to people who I manage and mentor, to learning about homeschooling (I even homeschooled my own son for two years), my experiences have shaped me professionally and personally. There’s also the satisfaction of supporting hundreds of thousands of homeschool families through the years. Perhaps the most rewarding experience is learning to listen and respond to the people that I’m working with and making sure that they understand that their experience is important to me and something that I’m invested in.