Starting with the first telephone customer service representatives in the 19th century—and spanning to the now ubiquitous voices of Alexa and Siri—women have always played an intrinsic role in making the consumer economy run smoothly.
According to a 2019 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics report, women make up 61% of all the country’s customer service representatives. Yet, in 2020, McKinsey & Company found that women account for only 39% of the industry’s director and manager roles worldwide.
These figures show that there is a huge opportunity to bring women into retail leadership roles. It’s not just about equality—women have unique perspectives and skills that are proven to improve outcomes and business performance.
This was the topic of discussion for a recent Women in Retail Pavillion Leadership Chat at Shoptalk, where Principal and Founder of Retail Strategy Group Liza Amlani and I spoke about women in leadership. Keep reading for my thoughts on how women are transforming the future of customer service.
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Leading with compassion since day one.
Women have been the first choice for customer service since the job was invented. When Alexander Graham Bell needed to find support staff for his new product the telephone, he hesitated to hire men because teenage boys often had “bad attitudes” and women were cheaper. Women’s reputation for being more courteous made them a natural fit.
During the World Wars and with the onset of switchboards, customer service jobs remained solidly in the women’s sphere. But the reasons aren’t really different from today. Women were available, less expensive, and didn’t need benefits. Even today, the flexibility and ability to work from home continues to draw women to this field. The gender pay gap, unfortunately, also persists.
But women’s value in retail extends far beyond pay inequity. Bell hired them for their ability to speak to the consumer in a way that men couldn’t. Today, women make 80% of all purchases, so it’s essential that the people who are actually speaking to these consumers share their voices.
Women in customer service leadership roles are promoting more inclusive cultures and hiring practices to create more representative teams that can better serve a diverse customer base. This is an example of what’s often called “leading with empathy.”
Women have led with empathy and compassion since well before anyone coined the phrases. And they don’t just bring that value to their customer service roles—they also carry it into executive suites.
Turning emotional labor into a superpower.
As a self-described retailer gone tech, I started working in stores at just 18 years old. It was in those early years where I learned that good service matters. To this day, I still have no patience for poor customer service. In fact, my adoration for customer service is at the root of why I joined Talkdesk in the first place: I wanted to create conditions for everyone to love what they do each day.
Customer service is emotional labor. Sociologist Arlie Hochschild first defined the concept of emotional labor in the workplace in 1983, referring to any job that requires workers to display certain emotions or manage their feelings and expressions.
Professions typically dominated by women also tend to be those that require lots of emotional labor—think nurses, restaurant wait staff, childcare workers, and office assistants. Customer service has a rightful place on that list.
That’s because shopping is, inherently, emotional. Loyalty is not just points. Instead, buying decisions are about feeling a connection with a brand—and generating that connection requires strong emotional intelligence.
That’s why we’ve worked to build the groundwork to foster these emotional connections through Genesis Miranda Longo’s Culture of Compassion initiative at Talkdesk. The idea is that company leaders show compassion to their agents, the agents show it to their customers, and the customers, in turn, show it back to the agents and the brand overall. This is just one example of how women can use their innate strengths to change how the industry works.
Driving innovation as only women can.
While women have always been the ones behind the phones in traditional customer service jobs, the dawn of artificial intelligence (AI) has created new niches and opportunities where women can play yet another transformational role.
Conversational and generative AI includes everything from the simplest chatbots to virtual assistants, all the way up to the much-discussed ChatGPT. Women can use technology and data to make an immediate impact on humanized and personalized experiences that meet evolving customer needs. Women’s empathy makes them a key asset in this exciting new field.
Don’t have a background in science or tech? Don’t stress. Technology doesn’t have to be a barrier to pursuing many of the opportunities in this emerging field. Women can play a role in developing the emotional code, not just the computer code.
Mentoring the women leaders of the future.
I consider myself lucky to work at a tech company like Talkdesk where the entire retail leadership team and 50% of overall leadership are women. But when I think about what will enable all women in retail to grow professionally and reach the top of the field, mentorship is key.
It’s not enough to become a leader yourself—you have to think about what it means to leverage the village. That means spending time with the customer service reps in your contact centers, talking to them, and helping them grow as women as well.
Show up as a leader. Take up that space. Be confident. Consider this your call to arms and sisterhood as well as a call to unleash the transformative potential of women as retail leaders.