Before there were computers and email, there was office mail, and most large corporations had a mail department and mailroom. As anachronistic as it might sound, the mailroom was responsible for receiving every bit of mail that came into the company, sorting it, distributing it—and often even reading it, though it is doubtful that was a formal part of anyone’s job description.
It was never recognized on an organization chart, but the mailroom clerk was a very powerful position in most companies for the simple reason that the clerks knew what was going on throughout the organization. The mail clerk was effectively an analog version of what we might today call social networking. Because of their deep understanding of company activities, mailroom clerks were in a perfect position to be first in line to seek job openings or to take advantage of opportunities only they knew about, or so the myth goes.
No wonder, then, that the mailroom also served as the basis for a few Broadway and Hollywood productions over the years—rags to riches stories of people starting at the bottom and working their way up. The mailroom was unique and served an often overlooked function in American business, one that we might be missing today. And the mailroom was just one example, too.
All over business, industry and the professions, there are abundant examples of people rising from the ranks to achieve higher status and better pay, and not all of this rising was as random as the mailroom, either. A lot of professional or semi-professional occupations we see today have deep roots. For example, the paralegal position grew out of the legal secretary job, and just about any affiliated medical position you can think of, such as laboratory technician or X-ray technician, was a job that opened up once doctors had figured out the science and needed to get back to seeing patients.
‘Every month, four or five call center agents take other positions within Wells Fargo.’
The call center agent might be the best example in business today of a position with great potential for expansion either through promotion or, perhaps, through direct “professionalization.” Analogous to the mailroom clerk, the call center agent has a lot of knowledge about customers, products and policies, but instead of leveraging this talent, many companies simply treat the call center as a cost; consider it a low-paying burnout job; and look for ways to cut the costs of providing the function, often by outsourcing to lower-labor-cost countries.
Wells Fargo Card Services
I wanted to test my hypothesis, so I called Michael Armstrong, senior vice president and director of customer service at Wells Fargo Card Services. Armstrong oversees thousands of agents in his call centers, and according to him there’s no reason the call center agent position has to be associated with burnout. “I think people burn out more due to frustration with their job or their manager than burn out from not liking the job,” Armstrong said.
Like a lot of call center executives, Armstrong sees selecting the right people and managing them well as two of the secrets of success in running today’s call center. He says, “In all of the call centers I have been in, there has always been a huge opportunity to give the agents the leadership they need to be successful.”
Armstrong said that 60 percent of his hires fit into the Generation Y demographic (people under 25), and that the portion might go as high as 80 percent in a few years, so the idea of providing a growth path for agents is timely and important. “There will always be an element of call center jobs that is entry level,” Armstrong cautions. “But there will also be an element that will be more advanced—in sales, for example—for people with more experience and interpersonal skills.”
But what about moving up the ladder to other positions within the bank? “That’s always gone on, but I think we may see more of that going forward,” Armstrong said, adding that, with so many Gen Y people entering the call center, some are definitely looking at the call center as a rung on the career ladder and not a dead end. In fact, according to Armstrong, “Every month, four or five call center agents take other positions within Wells Fargo.”
Presumably, those people learned some things about Wells Fargo and banking in general as well as about dealing with customers in their stint as call center agents. In a way, you can look at the agent experience as on the job training for these people who decide to climb the ladder. If that’s true, and I think it is, then in giving a promotion the bank is realizing an investment it didn’t even know it was making.
It might be hard for the bank to put a financial number on it—but not impossible. How long does it take to recruit and train someone to work another part of the bank the way the tellers out front do, what does that cost? Other people in other countries recognize this entry level training for what it is and this skills transfer is one reason the call center agent job is coveted elsewhere.
So it might seem unconventional, but, at least in this case, the people signing up to work in call centers may be changing the definition of the business. They are young and bright, and many of them have college-level educations and expect to get more out of their call center jobs than simply making money while getting started in life.
They are the latter-day mail clerks who have deep understanding of a big part of their companies. And if the Wells Fargo case is typical, someday corner offices might be occupied by people who got a start in the call center. That’s what happened to a lot of mail clerks.