Ask a Boss: Dealing With Customers Is Making Me Depressed!

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Dear Boss,

I wear many hats at my job and manage various areas such as office administration, finance, customer service, and special events. Customer service is probably the least-favorite part of my job, but I do fairly well because I am friendly, personable and at least appear to be patient (even though on the inside this may not be the case!). It’s not so terrible year-round because we have slower times where I don’t communicate with customers all that often. However, we are in the midst of our busiest season and I am finding myself getting quickly burned out by the demands of our customers.

My organization has pretty strict policies and unfortunately this sometimes results in frustrated customers with few solutions available to pacify them. I have grown tired of receiving the same complaints day in and day out, and I no longer feel empathy for these people who are contacting us about their various issues. What’s worse is I will receive a particularly nasty, mean-spirited email or phone call and find myself feeling personally attacked. I stress over confrontation with customers and often feel upset about negative interactions long after they have ended. I know the simple answer is to not take these things personally and to just let go of the emotions I am feeling, but I have not been successful at detaching myself.

This job has many benefits that I am constantly trying to focus on. I am paid very well, the vacation and sick time is fairly generous, my commute is easy and short, the office environment is laid-back and I have learned so much in the short time I have been with this organization. I feel like I can really grow and potentially move away from customer service, but there’s no telling how long that will take. Lately I have found myself feeling exhausted and dejected whenever I leave the office, and I wake up a good hour or two before my alarm goes off every day, already dreading the workday and unable to fall back asleep because I am so anxious.

I feel myself sinking into a depression related to my job and I am not sure what to do. I have been seeing a therapist one or two times a month for the past year and a half, and while she has been helpful I find myself feeling uneasy and sad about work in between our appointments. My boss is sympathetic but her general response is something along the lines of “I get that this sucks sometimes but unfortunately that’s just the way it is.” If you have any advice for my situation I would so appreciate it.

Well, you don’t have to stay there if you’re truly miserable! Or even if you’re just a little bit miserable.

I’m not necessarily urging you to leave — it might make sense for you or it might not — but sometimes just realizing that you have that option makes work frustrations more bearable by reminding you that staying is a choice.

I think you’re on the right track in trying to focus on what you’re getting out of being there: the generous pay and time off, the easy commute, the relaxed culture, and the professional growth. Getting really clear on the trade-offs you’re making will help you remind yourself, “I have decided that I will deal with frustrated customers in exchange for having $X show up in my bank account every month, this great commute, and a bunch of time off.” Sometimes keeping that in the forefront of your mind can make the parts of your job that you dislike significantly more tolerable.

But if you’re already doing that and it doesn’t feel like enough, that probably means that these trade-offs aren’t the right ones for you. You’re allowed to decide that the price you’ll accept in exchange for the downsides of this job is higher than what you’re getting. You’re allowed to decide that even if you feel guilty about it and even if you think that you should be willing to do this work for that compensation. Whether or not you “should” feel that way is irrelevant. I probably should be willing to work a sales job for a six-figure salary but I’m not, because I know it would make me miserable and I price my day-to-day happiness higher than that. Unless you’re being so precious about what you will and won’t do that you’re unable to meet your basic obligations to yourself and any dependents, you get to make any call here that you want.

However, since there are significant things that you do like about the job and since you’re probably not going to find a new job overnight and still need to maintain your mental health while you’re there, it’s also worth seeing if there are other things you can do to make the job more bearable. A few ideas for you:

• Since it sounds like you’ve found that this type of customer service isn’t for you, can you start actively working on a plan to put yourself in a position where you won’t need to do it in the future? That could be as simple as the aforementioned job search, but it could take other forms too. For instance, is there a way to make yourself so valuable to your employer in other areas that you’ll have a convincing argument for taking you out of customer service altogether? (That’s not always practical, but since you wear so many different hats already, it might be feasible.) Or can you work on shoring up your experience and accomplishments in other parts of your job — like the finance or special-events work — so that when you do move on, you’ll be well positioned to apply for jobs that don’t also throw in the customer-service work too? (It’s true that many jobs have an element of customer service to them, but you want to get away from the ones where it’s a core focus.)

• Can you reframe your role in your head? This might sound hopelessly Pollyannaish, but rather than seeing yourself as just the recipient of customer aggravation, can you see yourself as the person who can give a frustrated, frazzled human the gift of speaking to someone competent and compassionate? Even if you’re not able to give them the exact answer they want, service issues can be so frustrating for consumers that getting a skilled and caring person on the phone can be the difference between a really foul day and a decent one for some of your callers.

• Could you make a case that your company should revisit the strict policies that are frustrating to many of the callers you have to deal with? I realize that there might be reasons that doesn’t make sense, but take a look at whether you could argue that the time your company spends appeasing upset customers — and the sales impact of pissing off so many of them — actually would warrant changing those policies. If you can put together that case, it’s worth a try. If it’s shot down, you’re no worse off than you are now … and who knows, you might influence a chance in policy and get hailed for creative thinking.

And if none of that works, do think seriously about moving on. No job is perfect, but regularly dreading work and starting to feel depressed are signs you need to change something about the job. In this case, that something might be the job itself, and it’s okay to conclude that.

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Ask a Boss: Dealing With Customers Is Making Me Depressed!