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How customer service experience can help you enter graduate programs

James Davis

Careers Commentator
Your part-time job may be doing more than you think to secure a full-time role out of university. Here’s why.

It’s great having money. It lets you buy food, which lets you live. Nine out of ten doctors agree living is a good thing. The tenth is uncle Jim, a recursive multi-dimensional entity that clones itself every time a ninth doctor comes into being. He hates vaccines and ordered his doctorate online. What Jim doesn’t want you to know is how a part-time job in hospitality or customer service can make you a highly employable candidate for just about any graduate program. If you’re working part-time already or thinking about getting a job through uni, enjoy this little piece of affirmation. If you’re just studying full-time, we’re going to guilt you into working through the power of passive-aggressive prose. Enjoy. 

It improves your verbal communication skills

This is something everyone thinks they’ve got because they can speak one or more languages. Funnily enough, there’s more to it. Being an effective communicator implies effective listening and understanding of other peoples’ concerns too. If you’ve ever worked in customer service, you’ll understand how important that is. After all, if you can’t interpret what customers want effectively and make them feel heard, you’ll have a hard time serving them. 

People in customer service roles develop these sorts of skills on the job, which is part of the reason graduate employers like applicants who’ve occupied them. When dealing with clients in any professional sense, liaising with other businesses, negotiating deals or collaborating with colleagues, having the ability to communicate effectively is exceptionally useful. You’ll be able to demonstrate your abilities in this area during any sort of job interview too, so the practical uses of having been in a customer service position will become apparent immediately. 

It develops your patience

You’ve likely learned the world isn’t full of sunshine and flowers. As a customer service professional, you learn to deal with prickly individuals on a regular basis. No, this doesn’t mean threatening their family if they don’t stop yelling at you. It means keeping your cool despite anything they might be saying so you can continue making good decisions.

Graduate employers love this because they too know how some people can be! Furthermore, patience in general assists in dealing with just about any person or problem. It’s a broadly applicable quality that can assist in just about any decision-making or interpersonal capacity. No matter what job you end up in, we can guarantee your patience will be tested by difficult problems and people. If you’ve gotten your start in customer service roles, you’ll have likely had a chance to develop this. 

It helps you develop empathy

This is something that develops in combination with the previous skills. In becoming a good listener, having empathy is essential to the process. Patience with others can be facilitated by understanding their concerns. Great customer service is about understanding the needs of the customer, after all. If you can strengthen your empathy, you strengthen your ability to do your job to the best of your ability. 

Once again, this is essential to any graduate role, which is yet another reason why having that first customer service job is so appealing. Having been in one implies you’ve had to learn empathy, or at the very least a convincing imitation! You’ll need empathy all throughout professional life, not just at the start when you’re communicating with colleagues or clients. From manager of a team to executive of a company, being able to empathise with subordinates is the mark of good leadership. This isn’t just because it improves the quality of everyone’s work though. It improves the quality of their working lives! When everyone feels happy and understood, coming into work each morning is that much easier. Who would’ve thought that seemingly-inconsequential customer service job could build toward that?

It shows time management capabilities

You could say this with just about any job really, but customer service jobs are no different. If you’ve got a job, you need to learn time management. If you don’t have very good time management skills to start with, you’ll develop them throughout the course of your job. 

‘Time management’ doesn’t even have to mean extensive timetables and schedules divided into six-minute increments (although it can if you’re some kind of ascended time lord… or lawyer). It can just mean knowing how to come into work at the same time each day and setting some goals for the day. In customer service, this could mean aspiring to utilise some new method of communication with eight new customers today, but it could equally mean waking up and just telling yourself, ‘I’m gonna do a great job today. Damn, I’m good.’ We’d recommend defining what a ‘great job’ entails first however, otherwise you’d never be able to know when you’ve done it! 

Goal-setting isn’t the only aspect of time management. Juggling day-to-day activities, be they remembering several coffee orders or waiting for multiple tables, all serve to grow your skills in this regard. If you’ve got a job like this on your resume, you’re telling employers you’ve developed these skills to some extent. Just like the other skills on this list, they help in every respect! You’ll need to kick your time management into high-gear for your first graduate job, as they’ll throw new activities and tasks at you thick and fast. Having been in customer service will help you out when it comes to dealing with them.

It helps you learn to problem-solve

This goes hand-in-hand with time management. Customer service professionals have to deal with unfamiliar circumstances on a regular basis. Each customer is different after all. Every person has different needs and requirements. In fact, many of the hypothetical circumstances previously mentioned are problems in and of themselves. How do I deal with this insufferable dolt at table six? What alternative brand of headphones will I recommend this person given we don’t carry what they’re looking for? 

Whatever it is you’re doing and no matter how small the problem, you may not realise just how many problems you’re solving and decisions you’re making on a daily basis in customer service. That’s part of what makes experience in these roles valuable to employers. You’ve learned to solve problems almost implicitly. The challenges faced in your graduate job will likely be different, but the demeanour with which you face them (which you learned in customer service) will come in handy. Employers know this and will give you due consideration as a result. Remember, whoever’s hiring you may even be able to relate to all your experiences. Uni wasn’t free thirty years ago after all either! They either had their way paid for them, in which case good for them, or they had to work through uni too. They should understand the grind, what it takes to succeed and the problem-solving you likely did. If they don’t buy it, that’s fine. Just bring up any of the numerous time you solved a problem in your job interview or cover letter where applicable to show your mettle. 

It helps develop a resilient, positive attitude

No matter how upbeat you are, not every day in customer service will be pleasant. It’s these days where you get the most value. Being able to persist in the face of whatever might be happening, be it encroaching deadlines, the onset of illness, tiredness from a hard night before or a deadly combination of the three, is perhaps the most valuable thing you can learn in customer service. After all, people show who they truly are under pressure. If you can develop who you are under pressure, you’ll be a much more valuable employee, manager or business owner when you graduate. The last thing employers want is a graduate who will crumble under pressure. 

In customer service, there will be miserable days, which is true of any job. You’ll have a really awful family gathering show up to the restaurant yelling at you for hours. You’ll have customers making demands to see the manager. It happens. However, by keeping your cool, staying positive and remaining resilient, you’ll have a better shot at applying all the other skills you’ve been developing through your customer service journey. It’s much easier to solve problems, manage your time and listen effectively when nothing’s getting under your skin. 

Your graduate job will challenge you in different ways, but it will be challenging nonetheless. Having a customer service job on your resume tells employers you’ve got a bit of dirt under your fingernails and can handle some heat. 

You learn to memorise product information

Of all the skills you might not expect employers to take notice of, this might rank number one. After all, what good does knowing the brunch menu for each day of the week do for a graduate job? Well if you want to get specific, not a whole lot. Broadly speaking though, what you’ve demonstrated is a willingness and ability to memorise and retain job-relevant info. Now that’s useful. University itself will contribute a great deal to your learning abilities, but being in customer service lets you use some regularly applied memorisation to a practical cause. 

Just about anything you can think of can make use of this. One of the more obvious examples is sales; as a sales person, you’re expected to have comprehensive knowledge of your product and why it’s great. If you’re a financial advisor, you need to know back-to-front what packages you’re offering and their details. If you’re an engineer, you don’t just need to know the physics and operation of your equipment. You need to understand the product you’re selling. You can’t just learn how aeroplanes work generally. You need to learn how your aeroplane works and what differentiates it. Even if you aren’t the salesperson, everything’s a product… and you’ve got to sell it. Client-facing or not, having the ability to memorise product information will help you out in any graduate role. Being able to demonstrate this to graduate employers gives them yet another good reason to hire you.

We hope you feel affirmed about your customer service role and all you can learn from it. As you can see, it’s far from just a means to an end (money). It really can be an experience in personal development, which is hard to find at this stage in other areas. You can volunteer, join clubs and do the whole shabang, but a consistent paid responsibility in customer service speaks volumes about who you are, what you’ve learned and what you can offer right from the word ‘go’. To this end, if you haven’t done any customer service work before, we’d definitely recommend doing some while you’re still at uni to flesh out your skills and boost that resume. Good luck!

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