At the beginning of my working life I worked in a call centre for a holiday company. I started out in sales. It was soft sell – the customers called because they wanted a holiday, and often knew which one they wanted. My job was to take the order where possible, cross-sell where it wasn’t and up-sell where appropriate. We weren’t allowed to tell lies (sackable offence), but were encouraged to make places we’d probably never been to sound like the greatest place of Earth.
More often than perhaps it should have, the ‘lovely hotel with amazing views over the sea, and an atmospheric restaurant serving home cooked food’ turned out to be a converted block of cheap built flats between a building site and the red light district with a fabulous view over the ferry port, and a café that only served bacon and eggs and had a slightly fishy smell about it. But that wasn’t our problem, because we’d made the sale, earned our commission and other colleagues dealt with them from there onwards.
Later, I moved into the customer service department, mostly on the phone and occasionally out covering where a rep wasn’t available. This was where I learnt about the value of customer service – of turning people whose high expectations had crash landed, into loyal customers – not always possible, but worth their weight when you did. Problem solving and positive ‘can-do’ attitudes in customer service staff were invaluable and often created a customer’s need to call our sales centre first for their next holiday.
With the Gulf Crisis of the early nineties, blizzards stranding flights in North America, and HIV running rampant throughout, I also learned that if marketing didn’t get new customers to call, and/or sales didn’t convert the call to a sale, then we didn’t have anyone to try and convert into a happy loyal customer.
Finally, I specialised, working in a department where marketing pulled in the new customer, then we took the customer from initial call all the way through sales, any pre-holiday customer service, ticketing, travel, and any liaising during and after the holiday. The price points were high end, and the sales element was much, much harder with a far higher level of knowledge, speaking with customers with very particular requirements, where cross- and up-selling only worked if you really knew your products well and personally – and you always knew that if you got it wrong, then you were the one that had to deal with the fall out. It was challenging, often frustrating, but also rewarding. The customer base was largely very loyal both to the company and to the coordinator they dealt with.
Sales and customer service can too easily be seen as opposite sides of the same coin, and often conflict with each other – how often does the customer service person tell you something completely different to the salesperson after you’ve bought the mobile phone/insurance/broadband/etc? Ultimately, one cannot thrive without the other, and where those two elements – along with all the other elements in a company – work as a team, is where companies succeed the best.