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Trying new things can be scary. Taking your career in a totally different direction after being laid off, with an infant at home no less, is the kind of scary that’s best avoided entirely. This is the position I found myself in for the better part of 2015, and, fortunately for me, serendipity would provide a happy ending.
For my entire professional life, I’ve been a bit of a renaissance man, working in a dozen or so very diverse industries, with the only common thread being customer service. Luckily for me, my current company (Infinite Campus) was looking to fill four positions in the support department at the time I applied, so there was a certain willingness to roll the dice on an unproven prospect who had never worked in software/technical support before. It also played in my favor that the other three applicants selected had a combined 30+ years in the industry, making a gamble on me more palatable. I’ve heard it said since then by a couple of folks involved in my hiring that I was considered the “wild card” at the time.
Considering the generally relaxed atmosphere that we have here (jeans and t-shirts, rock climbing wall, koi pond, free lunch daily), the interview process was surprisingly thorough in retrospect. If I include the initial phone interview, I went through five total rounds. Looking back now, this was my first indication of how seriously this company takes support.
The onboarding process was similarly thorough, where I didn’t actually start “doing my job” until more than a month after my first day. Honestly, that exhaustively thorough onboarding is what made it possible for someone like me to come in with no technical/software experience and thrive in this environment. It covered everything from CEO pet peeves (DO NOT feed the fish!) to internal processes and, of course, the software itself.
Once they took the training wheels off, I hit the ground running. Having been so extensively trained, there were plenty of support cases I was already comfortable enough to jump right into. Given that I had a threshold to reach in order to clear my “rookie” status, I was off to the races and having the time of my professional life.
It turns out I love this particular brand of logic puzzle, and something about that “Ah-ha!” moment that inevitably comes in (almost) every case was addicting. For the first time in my life, I could look at my watch around three o’clock and instead of thinking something like “Only x more hours until I get to leave,” it was more like “Holy smokes, I bet I could solve x more cases before I go home!” This really changed the nature of the passage of time at work in a positive way for me.
I learned something about myself and the way that I like to work in those first few months, something that I wish didn’t take me until my mid-thirties to figure out: I strongly prefer “reactive” work to “proactive” work, and I cherish the opportunity to specialize. For some reason, I still get this feeling when I say the reactive vs. proactive piece, fearing maybe that could be construed as laziness or an unwillingness to take initiative (neither of those things is the case). I’m a big believer in the idea that knowing your own strengths and weaknesses is critical to job success, which is in turn critical to job satisfaction. These people are experiencing some problem, they’ve come to us for help, and I and my 40 colleagues are going to collectively pick what we are good at solving and run with it…. What a great feeling!
Given that my support experience is limited to just the company I still work for, it’s hard to say how much of my experience is unique to this place or how much might be universal. The software we support is massive and changes nearly every week (at least once per month), and so the idea that any one person can know/keep track of it all is a farce. Once I internalized that fact, learning became a necessary ongoing journey instead of a moving target that seems impossible to hit. We are divided up into roughly six-person teams with module-based specialization, and then we individually specialize in specific states (our software is used in 45 states, and each has different regulations/localizations).
The specialization has led to some awesome opportunities to create repeated interactions with the same customers, which is key for me because it’s hard to establish trust based on a single support ticket. Once you have a chance to demonstrate your expertise and get to know some specific customers, the floodgates are open for some “wow” moments the likes of which are sought after by every customer service department out there. Gaining even a small personal “fan club” among your customer base is one thing, yet somehow becoming specialized in such a focused way makes it even more meaningful when you have internal resources seeking you out. In my job, that means a lot of what you would guess—other support advisors who need help with one of your modules/states. But it also means folks from other departments begin to come to you as a reliable source of accurate information. Is there a support organization out there that wouldn’t LOVE to add value and demonstrate their importance to the rest of the company in such a way? I submit that there is not, or at least should not be.
In a previous position, when I was in retail management and in charge of hiring (mostly teenaged first-job seekers), my motto was something like this: “If I can’t train them to do the actual job, that’s on me. But I need kids who can smile and look someone in the eyes.” Thankfully for me, the people who interviewed me must have been operating on a similar premise when I got my current job, because they had no reason to think I would be any good at this. My worst kept secret is that I’m bad with technology; I still need my wife’s help with my cell phone more often than I’d like to admit. In my defense, I was never put through a rigorous training process on how to use the darn thing! I’ll stop short of saying “If I can do this, anyone can,” because I still do believe there is an aspect of customer service that can’t be taught. But I will say that with some customer service sense, and a little aptitude for critical thinking, prospective hires shouldn’t be judged by a lack of direct experience in this industry or any like it.
I’m now approaching four years here. I still couldn’t be happier, and I’ve taken on the role of mentor for a couple of peers who started after me. I highly recommend a mentorship program if you don’t have one already. It really is beneficial for everyone involved. Last year (2018), I won the HDI Analyst of the Year award for the Minnesota HDI chapter. Being nominated by a group that I consider to be the smartest people I’ve ever worked with was humbling enough. But winning was really my greatest professional accomplishment to date, and none of it could have happened if somebody hadn’t taken a chance on the “wild card” with no experience.
Miles Marsh has been in the software support industry since 2015, after specializing in customer service in various other industries for more than a decade. He is a support advisor at Infinite Campus, a student information system (SIS) for public schools across the country. A strong believer in the importance of the people side of any business, Miles is passionate about connecting with his customers. In 2018, Miles won the HDI Analyst of the Year award for the Minnesota HDI chapter, and in 2019, his team won the national HDI Team Excellence and Best Service and Support Culture awards. Miles lives in Minnesota with his wife and children.
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