If you can find someone that has worked down on the ground in a coffee, retail or food service, you can rest assured that they have the first grounding bits to be truly excellent at support.
Almost every person that I talk to that has created a career out of supporting customers started off as a waiter, barista, or retail employee. I am no different. I’ve worked at Domino’s, more coffee shops than I can count, Apple, clothing stores, guitar stores, and about one million other jobs that don’t seem to directly translate into a career in tech.
How could someone who is seemingly successful have been slinging espresso just a few short years ago? The truth is that there are more than a few similarities between working in a restaurant, as a barista, or as a waiter and our friendly neighborhood customer support person. So, in the event that you have someone in your pipeline that has any of these on their resume, they deserve more than a precursory glance.
Let’s take a look at how the skills you build in these roles lend themselves to providing an excellent customer experience.
In my last role, prior to starting the steps to my career in support, I was the opening barista at a local coffee shop in Boston. For those of you that don’t know what that means, it meant that I had to get up at around four in the morning, somehow get myself to the cafe prior to the trains running, bake 60 muffins, 12 scones, brew 8 huge canisters’ worth of coffee and prepare the cafe for the rest of the day. That was all while taking the early morning customers’ orders and making their fancy latte drinks. I was the only one there until around 7AM when a second barista would come in and help assist me through the morning rush.
It’s a lot of pressure. (And your customers are all walking in before their first cup of coffee). With one step in the process going awry, the cafe would be ill-prepared for the remainder of the day.
If I didn’t show up on time or overslept, every other barista would be totally thrown off for the whole day. They would constantly be playing catch up, trying to bake more, trying to make sure iced tea was ready, running out of coffee…you get the drift. A lot of my success in the role was a deep-seated commitment to perfection. I knew what I had to do to achieve success and I committed to doing it, every day. That’s not something that can be trained or taught to a person—it’s an inherent personality trait.
Not only that, but this inherent personality trait is also important in a support role. Just like at a coffee shop, customers are depending on you and your team. Your teammates are depending on you, and your company is depending on you. If there is a step in your process that breaks down or doesn’t get done, the rest of the people that you work with shoulder the burden.
Take, for example, an outage. If during the outage, someone doesn’t follow the macro process for responding to customers, bad things can happen. In this case, it’s possible that a tag wouldn’t get added to the ticket, and then the customer would never receive a follow-up to let them know that the issue was resolved. Or a product team member would never reach out to get more information about their feature request. Either way: it’s a bad experience for your company (they don’t get the insights that they need), and it’s a bad time for the customer, too.
You need to get there and bake the metaphorical muffins.
Patience and Acknowledgement
People come into coffee shops or restaurants and bring all their anger and emotions with them. Maybe their boyfriend just broke up with them, or their cat is sick, or their boss just started their workday by yelling at them. To them, it is a huge deal that there is 2% milk in their latte instead of skim, or that their muffin wasn’t heated to exactly the right temperature.
A good barista, waitress, bartender or other food-servicer understands that these small details can actually be huge details to the customer. They will always pay attention to, acknowledge and correct any mistakes that have been made. They’ll remake the drink, get a new muffin, or maybe even offer free credit for next time.
In support, there is a whole lot more nuance: instead of being a few degrees of temperature off when heating a muffin, it may be that the product that someone depends on daily is broken or buggy. However, your customers will still bring their outside pain and frustrations into an interaction. And, just like the person on the other side of a service counter, your customer support team needs to be there to help diffuse, deflect and maybe even sort those feelings and frustrations out.
If a person has handled a customer getting really angry, and maybe even yelling at them over using sugar-free hazelnut syrup over regular, they will also be able to handle an aggressive customer over email, chat or phone with patience and understanding. They are already natural mediators.
Practice and Memorization
When someone first starts working in food service or retail, there are usually a ton of habits that they need to pick up. Some of these will be specific to the place of work, but many of them are just in the nature of being a server. For example, maybe the dishwasher is slightly sticky, or there’s an extra special discount that you can give customers on their birthday, but you have to know exactly which buttons to press on the register.
Beyond that, there are tricks to doing things that can help speed up your processes, certain people that will be able to help you do things that you wouldn’t otherwise be able to, and tools that you won’t even know about until a few months in. You are expected to learn all of those things before you are ever even tasked with the immense process of learning how to make a perfect latte or a drink or even plate a meal properly. In fact, often most restaurants or retail stores will hold you back from doing these important duties until you have mastered the small things, like filling up ketchup bottles or reracking garments.
This may sound foreign to many of us that have worked in technology for a long time. But, figuring out how to navigate your place of work is similar to the soft and hard skills that are required in support. The little practices, like learning that you can brew a vat of iced tea in the time that it takes for a batch of muffins to cook, are similar to finding the tricks of the trade like which screenshot sharing tool works best for you and your customers.
The big practices, like learning how to make cappuccino foam properly, can be likened to something like learning how to use Chrome Extensions to debug a nonfunctional script. Both people in foodservice and support people practice these tricks and methods tirelessly and essentially memorize them in order to boost efficiency and multitask. They become second nature.
Obviously, in some cases, this could be an oversimplification. It’s not that you should automatically hire anyone that has worked in food service or at a retail store, but more so that many of them likely already have the foundation needed to be a truly excellent support person.
Beyond the qualities listed above, there are tons of aspects that go into making a successful support agent: natural aptitude towards technology, overall demeanor, culture fit, and so on. But, if you can find someone that has worked down on the ground in a coffee, food service or retail, you can rest assured that they have the first grounding bits to be truly customer-focused and excellent at support.