Once considered the bottom of the technology job heap, customer support jobs have gained much-deserved respect thanks to the renewed emphasis on customer relationship management (CRM) initiatives. CRM has been around since the late 1980s. But recently, companies have been pouring more money into CRM to hold onto their customers and attract new ones.

Rapid growth of CRM
CRM is all about capturing, servicing, and retaining customers. Its importance has elevated customer support to a high priority. The job market for customer service representatives (CSRs), also called customer service agents, electronic telesales agents, interservice specialists, Web agents, and a bunch of other titles, has always been good.

Despite a shaky economy, CSRs are among several jobs where the demand is actually greater than it was in prior years. With plummeting sales and massive layoffs, a growing number of companies are dramatically cutting costs by outsourcing customer and tech support to large companies like Convergys, TeleTech, West Corporation, Sitel Corporation, Sykes Enterprises, Stream International, and smaller players like PeopleSupport, Inc., to name a few.

Thanks to technology and the growth of the Internet, help desk departments have evolved into critical components of growing companies. You’ll still find harassed CSRs fielding calls from frustrated customers, but the growing trend is moving the field towards e-communication. Taking advantage of the Internet, CSRs can answer questions by e-mail and even fire questions and answers back and forth via chat. Yet, with all this incredible technology at customers’ disposal, only 5 percent of Convergys’ customers take advantage of e-mail communication, according to Jack Freker, executive vice president of the large CRM company in Cincinnati. “Most people still like to hear a human voice and want personal assurance,” he says. The irony is that customers could get a faster response if they communicated electronically.

Practically all of the CRM companies are growing aggressively and increasing the number of call centers. Convergys boasts 50,000 employees working in 20 states. West Corporation in Omaha, NE, employs 24,000 people in 72 locations.

What makes a good CSR?
Typically, most CSRs are under 30 years old. Increased career opportunities at CRM companies make the CSR job an ideal entry-level position for college grads. About 90 percent of the CSRs at PeopleSupport in Los Angeles have college degrees, according its CEO Charlie Callahan. Convergys’ Freker estimates 75 percent of his employees have a couple of years of college.

Qualifications at the CRM companies are pretty standard. A familiarity with computers is essential for most CSR jobs along with good verbal and written communication skills.

Excellent opportunity
Practically all CRM companies are going out of their way to retain their CSRs by offering career tracks to better jobs. About 70 percent of Convergys managers started in entry-level positions, according to Freker. A motivated CSR can move up to supervisory and eventually managerial and executive jobs. Along the way, CSRs must be certified by Convergys, which amounts to passing a tough exam demonstrating competence on several technical fronts. There is also an opportunity to get A++ and MCSE certifications, which are costly but paid for by the company.

At Stream in Canton, MA, CSRs can move up to software support representative (SSR) and 12 to 18 months later be promoted to a development support representative (DSR) position working with applications software and maintaining and operating databases.

PeopleSupport’s CSR job ladder includes supervisor, subject matter expert (coach), and shift supervisor.

CSRs have an opportunity to get valuable work experience. They must learn a lot quickly, work under often-tense conditions when inundated with questions, handle every variation of customer (friendly to hostile), and become skilled communicators.

Where can I find CRM work?
Most CRM centers are located in what Freker calls “second-tier” cities where rents, salaries, and the cost of living are lower than those in “first-tier” cities. Second-tier cities include Salt Lake City and Orlando and Jacksonville in Florida, for example. First-tier cities include Boston, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Many CRM companies tuck their call centers away in tiny cities and towns where costs are even lower.

Entry-level salaries range from $19,000 to $34,000 depending upon the candidate’s skills. Whether you stick with a CRM company or eventually move off in another career direction, you can’t lose from having this experience. It’s an excellent catapult for any IT career.

For more information, explore the Help Desk Institute’s Web site.

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