Can You Be a Feminist and Work in a Customer Service Role?

Naturally, yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

When you take any sort of gig that involves sales and customer service, you’re giving your permission to put up with a certain level of poo from people. If you’re lucky (like me), you’ll end up at a reputable company that doesn’t tolerate when prospects or customers treat you in ways considered abusive. Effective leadership just doesn’t let that happen.

The typical customer service headset. This represents ‘putting my customer service hat on’ at work.

However, there’s still a realistic level of angst, frustration, and baggage you’re going to have to deal with from customers. It’s hard to solve a pain point if you’re not going to listen to the pain — and while empathy is a seriously important business skill, the occasional person will take advantage and direct their anger towards you.

If you’ve experienced abuse in a relationship, as I have, you might have worked very hard to recognize some customer behaviors as big red flags.

So how do you reconcile the normality of customer service duties with your own agency and empowerment, especially considering you have more product knowledge than the customer or prospect?

This is even more of a challenge for the empowered woman: the woman who has gained and nurtured the ability to see herself as equal to others, including men.

We’ve got to go through some extra, society-defying steps to break free of abusive ties and socially tolerated aggressions to have and use agency.

That’s a big part of what makes me effective at my job: I work a lot on myself — I can speak confidently about my area of expertise because I have developed my career alongside my feminist self and empowering, supportive hobbies. I’m sure most women can relate to this journey.

Expert and Servant

It’s obvious that effective customer service representatives are knowledgeable about the product or service they’re selling. It’s also typical that they’re there to help customers and prospects. The servant is what makes customer service. In customer service, I commit to:

  • Empathy and active listening
  • Providing solutions
  • Responding in a timely manner with appropriate information.

But like all customer service employees, I need to balance my level of expertise with my role as a servant. Therein lies the challenge — especially when I need to put my ‘expert’ hat on and speak or write authoritatively on the topic.

I’ve delivered customer service experiences to my peers and my mentor, and all of them have treated me with respect. That’s how customer service should be — it doesn’t feel degrading, it feels like a business partnership and transaction that only enhances the business relationship.

There are no guarantees about who walks in the door, though, and some people get a power trip out of demeaning the expert. Others will only spend money if they get you to admit certain points about your area of expertise in some sort of power game. Very occasionally jerks are customers. And unfortunately, it comes with the gig.

A Note: Customer Service Jobs and Privilege

Although I’m marginalized to some degree, I have a lot of privilege when it comes to how I do customer service. My leads are relatively focused, it’s only part of my job, and I handle interactions over the phone from the comfort of my home.

For others, customer service isn’t what they want to do for a living, but what they’ve had to do. And doing that for at least eight hours per day (since some customer service jobs don’t pay well and many people need two jobs to keep afloat) is stressful. When we gripe about customer service, this is really important to note. (And before ‘storytelling’ became the new thing in marketing, I used my English degree to work at Starbucks while I did freelance writing gigs at night, so I get it.)

Know Your Limits

I’ve learned to define what I will or will not tolerate, and I’ve also made those expectations very clear to anyone who employs me. So while I might tolerate some SEOsplaining from a dude who discovered one Neil Patel blog post and will agree that it’s part of the gig, that doesn’t mean I am going to tolerate:

  • Abusive or degrading language
  • Extreme service price negotiation or other behavior that devalues the company or myself.

At the end of the workday, finding and defining that line isn’t easy, but I have set stringent limits. I can’t really call myself an expert (or present myself as one) after tolerating this above a certain point, and while almost every customer ranges from tolerable to awesome, some customers are going to be gaslighting misogynists. It’s a fact of life.

Do I have to like them? No.

Do I have to tolerate their behavior? Only to an extent.

Here’s My After-Care Solution for Difficult Customer Interactions

After such an interaction, I check in with myself as I would in any other gaslighting situation. I use reputable sources on the internet to make myself aware of what is real and what isn’t. I also have a list of past accomplishments to look over and I know I can rely on the team for support.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from both real life relationships and LARPing (live action role play), it’s that everyone must deal with feelings eventually. To continue being open and accessible to customers, prospects, colleagues, and peers, I try to regularly deal with these issues so I don’t bring them to the office or any other situation in the future.

I am sure someone who has experienced more severe trauma has a more time-consuming and detailed response routine, but this is a five to ten minute decompression process I can do to let go of the baggage and move on with my work day.

Fact: Most of My Negative Interactions are With Men

When I started realizing that women can be colleagues and not competition, my perspective on business changed. I gave and received a lot more help, and I’m proud to work for a woman-owned business.

Unfortunately, some men feel threatened or left behind by this attitude — or by the confident presence of a successful business woman. And while most of my interactions with men are pleasant and respectful, the interactions that are negative are almost exclusively with men who place expectations on me rather than the services the business can provide.

Feeling like this after a customer service interaction is NOT okay.

When that happens, I steer the conversation back to the service and the business. And I don’t mind doing it awkwardly but inoffensively, in a way that lets them know I realize exactly what they’re doing, and that I’m awesome enough to maneuver around it.

Taking It Personally

Often in customer service, you’ll hear the advice “don’t take it personally.” As someone who took this to heart in an abusive situation, there was a lot I was resolved to not take personally, and it even cost me my physical health when I put the needs of others before myself. In that role, I was too much of a servant — and now I know that I need to be careful to avoid going into that role again.

Mentally, it’s really not healthy for me to justify someone treating me poorly and I have worked very hard to put myself first in my own life. That hard work has resulted in success in my career as well, and I try to keep that in mind.

I’m not a punching bag for a romantic interest or a prospective customer.

So while it might be good advice to some to ‘not take it personally,’ I know myself, and I know that I should actually take things personally more than I do already. As a woman, I’m also aware that I’m societally conditioned to put others’ needs first and to ignore my own needs and health.

So yes, I get that some people are going to be pushy or they aren’t going to like me being assertive and knowledgeable or even speaking up for myself. I know that in my role, I’ve agreed to acknowledge that. However, I am not willing to lose all the progress I’ve made, especially when that very progress and outward confidence is a professional benefit necessary for my job performance.

Instead, I prefer to remain empathetic and consciously limit my emotional responses in negative situations. I turn off the voice in my head that is pretty sure the occasional jerk is going to go home to his wife and treat her like a servant.

That might have been my problem, but it’s not anymore, and I’m just doing the best I can.

Customer service employees: How do you reconcile expertise vs. service? If you identify as a feminist, how do you deal with the ‘service’ part of customer service when it removes your agency? Let’s talk about it in the comments.