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Bersin: Why you need to treat your service pros like software engineers

Josh Bersin
Josh Bersin writes HRE’s HR in the Flow of Work column. Bersin is an analyst, author, educator and thought leader focusing on the global talent market and the challenges and trends impacting business workforces around the world. He can be emailed at hreletters@lrp.com.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 4 million people left their jobs in April 2021. The leisure and hospitality sector had one of the biggest defections—780,000 people quit that month.

Advertisements for service professionals are everywhere. Employers are scrambling to hire nurses, drivers, food service staff and customer support representatives. I view this as a wake-up call for companies everywhere. It’s time to recognize that service professionals are hugely important to business success. These employees need to be treated with the same care and concern that companies have shown to software engineers, digital marketers, product managers and other high-tech employees. Without a strong service organization and a sound set of practices to hire, care for and support service teams, your company will never grow.

Many had expected that digital transformation would usher in a “self-service era,” in which customers would be able to serve themselves. However, while we have indeed automated a wide range of tasks, we find ourselves still dependent on service. Whether at Peet’s, the local grocery store or Amazon, the service professionals you interact with are what largely make or break your customer experience.

And yet, service professionals are finding it harder and harder to do a good job because of staffing shortages, poor training, unrealistic expectations and general rudeness. Almost every day I see at least one article about an unruly passenger on a flight or a customer who verbally abuses a store employee over a mask requirement.

As Amanda Mull eloquently describes in her article “The Customer Is Always Wrong” in The Atlantic, our expectations for service have been baked into business models for decades and consequently have instilled a sense of privilege into consumers.

This is understandable in part. For instance, when you pay hundreds of dollars for a cell phone, you expect the customer service rep to be knowledgeable about the product, well-trained and empathetic to your needs and questions. If a critical, high-priced tech solution doesn’t work, I’m pretty upset if someone can’t fix it fast.

As more and more of our consumer life is digitized, the non-digital part becomes more important than ever. So you, as an employer, have to spend even more time and money on your service teams, service organization and service professionals.

Related: 5 key components of a digital transformation

My advice is to start thinking about service professionals the way we have thought about software engineers in past years. In the last economic crisis (around 2000), companies started lavishing benefits, perks and pay on software engineers. Java developers and data scientists started making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. As important as these types of high-tech jobs have become, they make up less than 7% of the total workforce. According to the World Bank, service professionals make up almost 50% of the total global workforce.

Over the last year, companies have spent tons of money on hybrid work, wellbeing, employee experience initiatives and all sorts of perks for office workers. It’s now time to focus the same amount of attention on call center workers, drivers, front-line staff and operations personnel. These employees, who probably make far less money than your company’s managers or IT staff, are now the center of the customer experience. Are you incorporating their needs into employee experience initiatives? Are you giving deskless employees the same technology support that other employees receive?

Related: Why better tech tools are vital for deskless workers

Over my years as an analyst, I’ve interviewed Wegman’s, Starbucks, Hilton, Target, Wal-Mart, American Express, Four Seasons and hundreds of other companies that pay very close attention to their service professionals. While customer service may seem like an entry-level job, these jobs actually require many skills, expertise and practice. American Express, for example, hires customer service agents who have worked in hospitality, not IT, because the company recognizes the importance of service experience.

Think about a nurse, salesperson or customer service representative. They have to learn how to listen to people, must take care of their needs and need to know endless details about offerings and services. Pacific Bell, my wife’s former company, recognized the importance of customer service reps decades ago. Its service professionals were highly trained and well paid. The company also conducted contests and offered rewards and other incentives to keep these employees happy and engaged. Why? Because in a recurring revenue business like telecom, losing a customer is a disaster. The same is true now for software-as-a-service companies.

Certainly, raising wages, offering better benefits and more flexible schedules, implementing recognitions and rewards for outstanding service all have their place in addressing this talent issue. But I suggest that the real issue is that we’re not giving these professionals the amount of focus they deserve. It’s about time we paid attention.

For more on changes in the workplace, click here to register for HR Tech, Sept. 28-Oct. 1 in Las Vegas, to hear Bersin’s opening keynote, “HR Technology Reinvented: The Big Shift Towards Work Tech.”