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How 5 Women Made It to the Top of Customer Service


As professionals climb higher up the corporate ladder, studies show many women tend to drop off–only 20-30 percent of vice presidents, senior VPs or executives are women. But, this is changing. Across several industries, women are taking the reins and helping improve the consumer experience by developing key relationships with decision makers, emphasizing flexibility and soliciting and implementing feedback.

We interviewed five highly successful female professionals who are revitalizing customer service at some of the world’s top companies. Here, we highlight how these women are breaking through the corporate glass ceiling, and what insight and advice we can glean from their experiences.

Molly DeMaagd

Title:Social Media Customer Service Director, AT&T
Years of Experience:19
Biggest Takeaway:Identify and fill unmet customer needs.

Molly DeMaagd rose to her position as the social media customer service director after 19 years with AT&T. She began her career working in one of the company’s call centers, where she helped launch the first email customer service team. Not long afterward, she worked with the IT department to develop AT&T’s first online self-service customer service website.

DeMaagd’s ability to spot gaps in customer service quality was instrumental in leading her to the successful role she holds today. For example, when she began her social customer service position with AT&T’s online support team, she oversaw the online customer service site. Noticing more customer service questions were being asked on the company’s Facebook page, DeMaagd began to work with public relations to generate replies. “We needed people to respond,” she says.

“We started to see increases in customer service-related questions and there was no path to helping these customers.” CEO of AT&T Mobility Ralph de la Vega asked DeMaagd to lead the launch of a social media customer service team, which she grew from four social media managers in 2009 to the 70-person team it is today.

DeMaagd’s extensive background in customer service and ability to juggle and shift roles helped her take the lead in developing this new aspect of the business while continuing to maintain her existing responsibilities. Regardless of the project she’s working on, DeMaagd is always on the lookout for ways to further improve the customer experience.

One example is when she noticed the company was receiving many requests from customers who wanted to be able to view and pay their bills online. DeMaagd led a team that involved members of AT&T’s IT and legal departments to design and implement a new online bill pay feature, which today is successfully used by millions of customers.

Sandi Hassett

Title:Director of North America Customer Service, LifeScan
Years of Experience:11
Biggest Takeaway:Use collaboration to lead your team toward a goal.

Leadership qualities are useful traits to have in the business world, and few people know this better than Sandi Hassett. For the past 11 years, she has served as director of North America customer service for LifeScan, a Johnson & Johnson company that manufactures blood glucose monitoring devices for diabetics.

Prior to LifeScan, Hassett spent two years leading a platoon as an Army officer at Fort Polk, LA. It was this experience, she says, that taught her to lead people with trust and confidence, and led to one of her greatest accomplishments in her position at LifeScan. When she came on board, Hassett says the company lacked the structure needed to establish clear roles for each department.

“We didn’t have a clear process and consistent connection to goals and objectives,” she says. “We needed to identify how business needs and [the customer service department] fit in the organization.” To address the lack of organization, Hassett restructured her department to include “skip level” meetings, in which high-level executives and managers gain insight by listening to employees from every level of the business.

After implementing these meetings, she discovered much of her communication to management never reached the customer advocates. To alleviate this problem, she created a weekly email summary of information she and other leaders shared called “This Week in Customer Service.” Hassett arranges round-table meetings with customer service representatives to learn more about customer comments and creates executive summaries with key takeaways.

She also conducts focus groups and meets with product teams to ensure products are of the highest possible quality. The standardized processes and expectations Hassett implemented allow communication to flow smoothly and consistently through the ranks, and have improved company operations as a result.

Namrata Kripalani Felger

Title:Director of Customer Experience and Quality, Dell
Years of Experience:11
Biggest Takeaway:Constantly ask questions to get to the root of a problem.

Namrata Kripalani Felger is a natural leader. In her nine years at Dell, she has consistently been on an upward track, starting out as a supply chain and operations manager before reaching her current position as director of customer experience and quality.

One of Felger’s key leadership strengths is asking questions in order to break problems down into smaller, easier-to-tackle parts. Asking something as simple as “why” about the processes behind something can help identify the core of a problem, she says. “I’m always asking questions that challenge the status quo and I’m making decisions at a fast pace in difficult situations,” she says. “This strengthens my ability to improve processes and manage through change.”

For example, Felger noticed that the process of switching customers to the newest Dell devices without gaps in service could be improved. She identified the problem by constantly monitoring three points of data: feedback from sales representatives to learn how operations could improve their work; feedback from customer comments; and internal metrics, such as delay in fulfillment of products or number of calls placed to customer care.

Armed with this information, Felger led a team to design and implement a new process for large and midsize customers to transition smoothly to new Dell products without issues. After this pilot program proved successful, it was expanded to include other products and customer sets. As a result, Dell improved customer and sales operational measurements by approximately 30 to 35 percent.

Barbara Higgins

Title:Senior Vice President, Customer Experience and Retention, Allstate Insurance
Years of Experience:24
Biggest Takeaway:Being proactive in learning about your industry, employees and customers.

Barbara Higgins began her customer service career as an operations director at Disney in June 1988, taking on challenging assignments in Hong Kong, Paris, Florida and California. Seeking a change, she began to look at new opportunities, and set her sights on Allstate Insurance. She says she was interested in the insurance company because of her hospitality background, and believed it would offer her a unique customer service opportunity.

In 2011, she requested to meet with Allstate leadership to see if there was a fit for her. Allstate offered Higgins the position of senior vice president of customer experience and retention. Entering a new industry was daunting, she says, and so she quickly invested time in learning everything she could to help ease the transition.

Higgins met with experts on every aspect of the insurance business. She also spent time in the field with agency owners, at contact centers and at claims organizations, where she listened to customers to get a better sense of their needs. As a result, she was well-prepared to roll up her sleeves and get started when the time came.

“When I was ready to start implementing key initiatives, I knew what to measure in order to figure out if the direction was right or not,” Higgins explains. “I had a better idea of what the impact might be on the individuals charged with delivering service to our customers.” She says the learning process allowed her to identify a key operational measure linked with customer satisfaction.

As a result, her first initiatives focused on removing barriers that would prevent Allstate from affecting the customer experience. To become better acquainted with her staff, Higgins takes the time to understand what each employee does best. This helps her ensure they’re in positions that allow them to perform at their peak level every day. “Taking the time to try to learn and to appreciate how the business was run has been invaluable to me,” she says.

Sheri Williams 

Title:Director of Customer Service,
Years of Experience:14
Biggest Takeaway:Establish strong relationships with peers early to facilitate changes later.

Sheri Williams is the director of customer service at Trulia, a residential real estate website for buyers, sellers and renters that lists neighborhood and community information such as crime rates, economic conditions and school reviews. Her career in customer service began directly after she graduated high school, when she worked on the community relations team of a banking call center.

After a brief stint in sales with a propane wholesaler, Williams quickly realized she missed working directly with customers. She moved back into customer service, spending six years in a leadership role with the Janus Capital Group.

Soon after, Williams landed a managerial position at Trulia, where she quickly seized the opportunity to lead the opening of a call center in Denver, CO, building out the center to include four supervisors and 46 frontline employees. After two years, Williams was promoted into her current director role.

When asked what factors she attributes to her success, Williams cites her ability to create strong relationships with key decision makers at her company. By gaining their support, she has been able to effect real change. “It’s about building partnerships and alliances,” she says. “As long as you do that throughout your career—building relationships and partnerships from the get-go—you will have people there to support you when you think there’s need to change.”

Take Williams’ relationship with Trulia’s vice president of product, for example, who oversees products like the company’s Trulia Pro subscription. Williams says she believed the company’s customer service department could serve as the voice of the customer to help the product team better satisfy customer needs, so she began meeting with him and his department regularly to discuss strategy.

They email and speak via conference call frequently, and Williams travels to San Francisco about once a month to meet with him in person. Developing this relationship early opened up a communication channel between the two that enables Williams to suggest changes to products based on customer feedback.

In one example, Williams noticed that a majority of the customer service calls were related to corrections to individual real estate listings. The relationship with the VP allowed her to get certain system enhancements prioritized, which led to a quicker solution to the listing problem.

Williams has established a positive track record as a result of the changes she has suggested, which increases the likelihood that other decision-makers at Trulia will pay attention when she has a new change she wants to implement in the future.

Relationships Are Essential

Looking at the journeys of each of these five women, it’s easy to see how their different backgrounds and strong business acumen drove them to attain top customer service positions in major companies. While each has embarked on a unique experience, one commonality they share is the ability to connect with people–whether it’s with customers, team members or leaders–and lead them toward a common goal.

Thumbnail image created by e3Learning.

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Taylor Short

About the Author

Taylor Short has worked as a reporter and writer for six years, focusing on local coverage of city governments, businesses, schools and police. Taylor tutored students in English and writing at Austin Community College and freelanced for Reuters News Agency before joining Software Advice in Fall 2013.

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