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What This CEO Learned by Working in His Company's Call Center

Nothing has taught me more about running a company than simply picking up the phone and listening to my customers.

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When you start your own business, you quickly find out that every day in the office offers valuable, if sometimes bruising, insights. Every meeting delivers a lesson; every income statement offers an entire education. But nothing has taught me more about running a company than simply picking up the phone and listening to my customers.

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I run a fast growing health insurance company, and every month my team fields an average of 50,000 calls. That’s about 2,500 calls every business day, or 250 calls every business hour. And even though my schedule is often hectic, I make sure to clear a few hours every week to head over to our call center and get on the line, if only to listen in. I also require every new employee, no matter his or her position or seniority, to start their tenure with the company by undergoing training that includes something similar. What have we all learned from these calls? Three big things:

Emphasize empathy.

Like very few other human interactions, a customer service call really teaches you to listen. Is the caller calm and patient, expecting a prolonged and detailed conversation? Or is she rushed, talking on her car’s speakerphone with three kids screaming in the background? Different people have different needs, and if you fail to acknowledge that basic fact -- if you fail to empathize with each customer as an individual -- you’re never going to run a great company, no matter what business you’re in.

Related: 5 Ways to Build Killer Relationships with Customers

On a practical level, this means forgoing scripts and encouraging an actual conversation between your reps and your customers. It also means approaching metrics like average handle time per call with caution, because your goal is not maximum efficiency but maximum emotional attention. Spend enough time listening -- and observing great listeners in action -- and you’ll find yourself hiring not necessarily folks with significant experience in your specific field, but the sort of people who truly care, and who make your customers feel like your company is grateful for their business. There’s no greater asset in the world, and no better recipe for success.

Be proactive -- in building community.

Sure, every business book in the world counsels being proactive. And chances are, that makes you think of brash and bold executives taking big, daring bets. But that’s not what I think of, at least not anymore.

Being proactive, when done well, is not about winning at all costs but about fostering a sense of community. It’s about, for example, noticing that one of our customers -- we refer to them as members -- had a baby, and sending her a note to offer our congratulations and some help figuring out the newborn’s health insurance. It’s about picking one member each week, every week, and surprising him or her with a nice handwritten card, just to let them know we care.

No one expects this from their health insurance company -- or from their investment manager, or local bakery, or any other business -- but when it happens it makes the world feel like a warmer place, which is good not only for the soul but also for the bottom line.

Related: How to Retain More Customers without Spending a Dime

Always look on the bright side.

If you think of customer service as an annoyance, you’re missing the point. Sure, a lot of it has to do with listening to gripes and complaints and problems, but it’s also an opportunity to have a direct conversation with the people who use your product or your service and to hear just how much it means to them. And that teaches you perhaps the most important lesson of all, one that’s oddly missing from the conversation most of us have about starting and running a business: be grateful. Not just for your revenue, or your growth, or any of the other markers of material success, but for your ability to do something meaningful for another person. When one of our members writes to say something nice, we print it out, blow it up and post it on the wall. We do so because we are thankful for the opportunity to do what we love to do, and thankful that we can do it well.

The next time the pressures of your job are bringing you down, the next time you feel exhausted or wound tight with anxiety, just know that there’s insight and inspiration literally within arm’s reach. All you have to do is pick up the phone.

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