My M.B.A. in Life by Susanne Veder Berger

Many people have heard the expression “the business of life” and wondered exactly what it meant. For me, that phrase has a great deal of meaning. It’s how I forged a successful career in the corporate world based on the lessons I’d learned overcoming a variety of personal challenges. Those challenges included learning how to hide so that people didn’t notice the enormous “port wine stain” birthmark that covered half my face until laser surgery gave me “a new life” decades later, finding a way to support my two young children as a single mother when my husband left me, and – most recently – creating a new life following the untimely passing of my third husband a little over a year ago.

Having challenges of various kinds thrust upon me over the yearsgave me a chance to learn a number of key insights regarding people. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of appreciating people, the way we connect with one another, and the value of each individual’s contribution to a group effort. Perhaps not surprisingly, these lessons and insights have not only helped me with personal struggles but they can also be directly applied to the workplace, as I discovered during my career in the business world. Now, I’m enjoying sharing those lessons with others, to spare them some of the pain that I’ve experienced over the years – and also to provide a few “short-cuts” to the success they envision.

One of my first jobs in the business world was that of a list broker assistant. Even at that early stage of the game, it was all about people – buying names of potential customers, learning how to target the best prospects, and how all this information fits together in a database. From the very beginning, I learned the value of “streamlining” – a skill that I had been using when educating my children and supporting their school, long before I ever traded my role as a homemaker for that of a businesswoman.

I wanted to make sure that my children and their fellow students had the very best when it came to education, and this meant doing some fundraising and connecting with the administrators who handled enrichment programs. The best way to get anything done on a large scale, of course, is to “aggregate” – bring everything together – and that meant reaching out to other schools in the district who shared our goals and concerns.

A computer database is the best way to handle large amounts of information like this – and the more details you have about your customers, the better. When you have a detailed understanding of exactly who your customer is, you have the key to success – but you also have to know how to talk to your customer. Together, this knowledge and this talent for rapport combine to make outstanding customer service possible.

The customer service scripts I’ve written for Quest, Bell South and Verizon emphasize both of these ingredients — factual information about the customers and products, combined with effective communication strategies. The members of the customer service team should know all about the company’s products and their benefits, of course — and they should be able to anticipate the questions that may arise in any conversation with a customer. Being prepared — both in terms of background knowledge and communication skills — is essential for establishing a genuine connection with each customer, which is the only way to attract loyal and long-lasting customers. Not surprisingly, it’s also essential that every member of a company’s customer service staff genuinely like people, because that smile comes through in their conversation — whether that conversation is face to face or by phone.

Having learned how wonderful it feels when a fellow human being genuinely cares, it’s easy for me to see how important qualities like compassion, curiosity and respect play in a business situation. With this in mind, I quickly became very successful at coaching customer service teams, and this lead to my work with ABI and Database America which, in turn, brought me into contact with an even larger number of companies. Often my challenge was to figure out a way for two very different companies to work together most effectively, a challenge that – once again – is all about people. My work teaching sales teams how to talk about various products was really a kind of problem solving. As I mentioned, by that time in my life, I had a lot of experience in solving problems — especially in terms of getting people to work together for a common goal.

I loved my work with customer service teams because it was very easy to measure success, and I discovered that I’m a bit of a numbers junkie. For some unknown reason, many of these companies – some of the largest in the world – often were not able to recognize overlapping markets of customers and other people-related problems that were quite obvious to me. For example, I told the marketing team at Microsoft that by buying customer information from eight different companies, there was a huge amount of overlapping information which they somehow failed to recognize. I pointed out that if they ever wanted to succeed they’d have to expand their market and eliminate this problem of overlapping databases. I helped them map out steps to overcome this problem, and then I moved on to other assignments.

As I discovered when I was undergoing treatment for a disfiguring birthmark and as I learned how to cope with life as a single mother, there’s a time for envisioning goals and there’s a time for pausing to reflect and take a deep breath. This is also true when it comes to the work we perform in the business world, of course. With the financial challenges we’re all facing right now, we need to be sure to give ourselves a pat on the back simply for surviving. Just as we each need to look within, those in the corporate world need to look within as well – and appreciate their employees. Any successful business is made of dedicated individuals who work long hours and are remarkably dedicated to their work. We need to be sure to acknowledge their contribution to the success of a business.

The “human capital” and human potential that can be found in any successful business must be nurtured and cultivated. Those who lead these dedicated men and women need to be sure to find ways to set new goals and encourage the growth and development of every member of the team. Once you’ve set these new goals, it’s time to go back to basics and focus on the fundamentals that made that business successful. This is what any championship sports team does, and this is what any business that hopes to be successful in today’s competitive marketplace must do as well.

The strategies of focusing on customer service and appreciating the employees that make a winning team are not mutually exclusive, of course. Instead, these ideas reinforce one another. Although many young people may feel that “employee appreciation” is a thing of the past, in fact it’s the best way to bring out the best in your team.

When customers see that a company values and rewards the hard work of its employees – with the result that they benefit from friendlier customer service and genuine dedication to quality – it’s truly a “win-win” situation. It’s also a great way to gain customer loyalty, which is truly priceless. This loyalty is not only important in terms of sales and revenue, but it’s invaluable if and when an unexpected problem pops up. By demonstrating genuine care and appreciation up front, customers can be surprisingly forgiving when something goes wrong.

In Part II of this essay series, I’ll share my thoughts on why it’s important to recognize and appreciation employees at all levels of a company, and why loyalty is such an essential quality. In Part III, I’ll stress the urgency of creating new opportunities for young men and women eager to put their talent and creativity to work.

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