Don’t Let the Title Fool You

I once went on a date with someone who asked me the ever dreaded question of what I do for a living — mostly because it’s a horrible way to start a conversation, just ask the French. When I mentioned that I was an administrative professional, it was as if all sense of hearing had been lost. My date went on to suggest that there’s not much of a career trajectory for administrative professionals. I guess she figured maybe I should have gone to law school like she had or even finished my undergraduate degree. However, what she failed to realize was that what I may have lacked in a formal education, I made up in experience. Sure, there might not be much of a career trajectory for administrative professionals, but the job has taught me practical lessons about what it means to effectively run a business or any organization for that matter. That doesn’t mean I’m prepared to be the CEO, but I essentially could. And if that’s not forward momentum, I’m not sure what else is.

Administrative professionals, however, tend to have a bad reputation mostly because many are abrasive, often incapable, or outright lazy — at least that’s been the experience of my non-administrative colleagues and I’m sure others — especially those working in large organizations and companies. I’ve often been sought after by my peers to come work with them, but this piece isn’t about me necessarily. I plan to share what I’ve learned about what it means to deliver customer service. The fact that I’ve made myself indispensable without a college degree says something about the value of hard work, dedication, and continuous learning. And when I talk about continuous learning, that could be through reading, taking courses, attending seminars, or even participating in on-the-job training. In the same way that an artist, trains herself to see the shapes out of what otherwise might appear as hard surfaces, we have to be willing to see the teachable moments that could be gleaned from any workplace situation. What sets an ordinary employee apart from an extraordinary employee is the one who listens with his eyes as much as with his ears and isn’t quick to make judgments. Instead, he makes observations in secret about what could be done better until the most opportune time to share his ideas. That’s the hidden advantage of every administrative professional who is willing to put forth the effort. Administrative professionals see everything. They’re often closest to management too.

I must admit, though, my other “competitive advantage” is that I spent four years serving as an enlisted member of the Marine Corps where I was first introduced to the values of: honor, courage, and commitment. Those values have been the bedrock of my personal life and work ethic. It’s true that people and organizations are largely defined by their values. They succeed or fail based on what they believe and hold dear. Marines are considered to be the most fierce and elite fighting force in the world because that’s what they project. During the Battle of Belleau Wood in 1918, the Germans called us: teufelhunde or dogs from hell, which we later translated to: devil dogs. Marines fight battles and win wars because being a devil dog means having a sense of duty or obligation.

Here are three big lessons that I’ve learned about delivering customer service as an administrative professional — which is a topic widely written and talked about — but no less important because customers are complex humans.

1. Know Thy Enemy: Okay, seriously, customers aren’t the enemy. I’m sure I wasn’t the first person to come up with it, but the concept is simple. The idea behind this lesson is that it’s important to understand who your customers are. Take time to get to know them. Understand their unique personalities and learn from them. Find out what makes them tick and tailor your work or product to making them more efficient. Also, as someone who relies on other people and service providers to accomplish a task — whether they work in IT, Human Resources, or Finance — it would be a good idea to get to know them too. I found that when people can put a face to a name, they’ll be more inclined to help you. Further, letting customers and associates know that you recognize their time is valuable will pay dividends in terms of overall productivity.

2. Don’t Be Afraid to Do Someone Else’s Job: This lesson is one of those teachable moments. I get that people may not always have the time, but you should really think about it in terms of what you could gain from the experience. I remember one of my colleagues coming up to my desk to detail some problem she was having with her computer. I could have submitted a service ticket to the IT office and let that be the end of it. But instead, I walked over to her desk and attempted to troubleshoot the issue. Only once I was certain that I couldn’t resolve the issue I called the IT office. I didn’t stop there, though. I watched the IT Representative fix the problem and asked him questions to clarify my understanding, so that I could position myself to better help the next person. I could have said, “It’s not my job” or “How about you put in your own service ticket and leave me alone.” We’ve all heard that before.

3. Never Say No: There does come a time when you must absolutely say “no” or you’ll burn yourself out — although Marines keep fighting when everyone else has quit or tired. However, this lesson is more about not giving into the defeatist mentality. These are the people who say: “It can’t be done.” Or, they’ll claim to have tried, but that it didn’t work. I remember nearing the end of my enlistment when I was asked by one of my superiors what I planned to do after the Marine Corps. At the time, I was interested in pursuing medicine (a lot has changed since then). He never told me that it wasn’t possible or that it would take too much more time out of my life that I could otherwise be enjoying like many others opined. Alternatively, he said, “If you find that while you’re pursuing medicine it’s not the course that you want to take, don’t think of it as giving up or failing. Think of it as you never saying no. Your shifting gears. Moving in a different direction because of some new information or stimuli.” So, when one of my more recent bosses asked me if it would be possible to make some last-minute changes to his travel arrangements. I didn’t say no or that it couldn’t be done. He may have had to travel across the country before making it back, but I picked up the phone and made the changes. Never saying no could be a teachable moment too. I mean, seriously, I would have never known that Frontier Airlines now has more direct flights out of Dulles.

There are many more lessons that I could share but, as with any business topic, customer service is really a matter of common sense. Treat them like humans. Do unto others as you would have done unto you. That’s what it all comes down to — unless you’re in sales. I don’t intend to be an administrative professional my whole career, but I believe that everyone could benefit from understanding what it means to keep the ship from sinking. I’ve mostly worked in government, but I imagine the private sector experiences many of the same challenges of delivering customer service that people will appreciate.