Career Guide for Customer Service Representatives

Customer service representatives provide support for a company’s customers. For larger companies, they work in large call centers fielding questions for help over the phone.

In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a customer service representative.

Customer Service Representative Summary

  • Customer service representatives held about 2.3 million jobs in 2008, ranking among the largest occupations.
  • Most companies require a high school diploma and will provide job training.
  • Employment is projected to grow faster than average, and job prospects should be good.

Working as a Customer Service Representative

Customer service representatives provide a valuable link between customers and the companies who produce the products they buy and the services they use. They are responsible for responding to customer inquiries and making sure that any problems they are experiencing are resolved. Although most customer service representatives do their work by telephone in call centers, some interact with customers by e-mail, fax, post, or face-to-face.

Many customer service inquiries involve simple questions or requests. For instance, a customer may want to know the status of an order or wish to change his or her address in the company’s file. However, some questions may be somewhat more difficult, and may require additional research or help from an expert. In some cases, a representative’s main function may be to determine who in the organization is best suited to answer a customer’s questions.

Some customer inquiries are complaints, which generally must be handled in accordance with strict company policies. In some cases, representatives may try to fix problems or suggest solutions. They may have the authority to reverse erroneous fees or send replacement products. Other representatives act as gatekeepers who make sure that complaints are valid before accepting customer returns.

Although selling products and services is not the primary function of a customer service representative, some customer services representatives may provide information that helps customers to make purchasing decisions. For instance, a representative may point out a product or service that would fulfill a customer’s needs.

Customer service representatives use computers, telephones, and other technology extensively in their work. When the customer has an account with the company, a representative will usually open his or her file in the company’s computer system. Representatives use this information to solve problems and may be able to make specific changes as necessary. They also have access to responses for the most commonly asked questions and specific guidelines for dealing with requests or complaints. In the event that the representative does not know the answer or is unable to solve a specific problem, a supervisor or other experienced worker may provide assistance.

Many customer service workers are located in call centers, where they spend the entire day speaking on the telephone. Companies usually keep statistics on their workers to make sure they are working efficiently. This helps them to keep up with their call volume and ensures that customers do not have to wait on hold for extended periods of time. Supervisors may listen in on or tape calls to ensure customers are getting quality service.

Almost every industry employs customer service representatives, and their duties may vary greatly depending on the nature of the organization. For instance, representatives who work in banks may have similar duties to tellers, whereas those in insurance companies may be required to handle paperwork, such as changes to policies or renewals. Those who work for utility and communication companies may assist customers with service problems, such as outages. Representatives who work in retail stores often handle returns and help customers to find items in their stores.

Work environment. Although customer service representatives work in a variety of settings, most work in areas that are clean and well lit. Those who work in call centers generally have their own workstations or cubicle spaces equipped with telephones, headsets, and computers. Because many call centers are open extended hours or are staffed around the clock, these positions may require workers to take on early morning, evening, or late night shifts. Weekend or holiday work is also common. Because peak times may not last for a full shift, many workers are part-time or work a split shift. As a result, the occupation is well suited to flexible work schedules. Many companies hire additional employees at certain times of year when higher call volumes are expected.

Call centers may be crowded and noisy, and work may be repetitious and stressful, with little time between calls. Also, long periods spent sitting, typing, or looking at a computer screen may cause eye and muscle strain, backaches, headaches, and repetitive motion injuries. A growing number of employers are hiring telecommuters, who provide customer service from their own homes. Although this remains somewhat rare, it can be a major advantage for workers who need to remain in their homes during the day.

Customer service representatives working in retail stores may have customers approach them in person or contact them by telephone. They may be required to work later in the evenings or on weekends, as stores are generally open during those times. Evenings and weekends tend to be peak hours for customer traffic.

Customer service representatives may have to deal with difficult or irate customers, which can be challenging. However, the ability to resolve customers’ problems has the potential to be very rewarding.

Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement

Most jobs require at least a high school diploma. Employers provide training to workers before they begin serving customers.

Education and training. Most customer service representative jobs require a high school diploma. However, because employers are demanding a more skilled workforce, some customer service jobs now require associate or bachelor’s degrees. High school and college level courses in computers, English, or business are helpful in preparing for a job in customer service.

Training requirements vary by industry. Almost all customer service representatives are provided with some training prior to beginning work. This training generally focuses on the company and its products, the most commonly asked questions, the computer and telephone systems they will be using, and basic people skills. Length of training varies, but often lasts several weeks. Some customer service representatives are expected to update their training regularly. This is particularly true of workers in industries such as banking, in which regulations and products are continually changing.

Other qualifications. Because customer service representatives constantly interact with the public, good communication and problem-solving skills are essential. Verbal communication and listening skills are especially important. Companies prefer to hire individuals who have a pleasant speaking voice and are easy to understand. For workers who communicate through e-mail, good typing, spelling, and grammar skills are necessary. Basic to intermediate computer knowledge and good interpersonal skills are also important.

Customer service representatives play a critical role in providing an interface between customers and companies. As a result, employers seek out people who are friendly and possess a professional manner. The ability to deal patiently with problems and complaints and to remain courteous when faced with difficult or angry people is critical. Also, a customer service representative often must be able to work independently within specified time constraints.

Advancement. Customer service jobs are often good introductory positions into a company or an industry. In some cases, experienced workers can move into supervisory or managerial positions or they may move into areas such as product development, in which they can use their knowledge to improve products and services. Some people work in call centers with the hope of transferring to a position in another department.

Employment as a Customer Service Representative

Customer service representatives held about 2.3 million jobs in 2008, ranking among the largest occupations. They can be found in almost every industry, although about 23 percent worked in the finance and insurance industry. Another 15 percent worked in the administrative and support services industry, which includes third party telephone call centers.

Job Outlook

Customer service representatives are expected to experience faster than average growth. Furthermore, job prospects should be good as many workers who leave this very large occupation will need to be replaced.

Employment change. Employment of customer service representatives is expected to grow by about 18 percent over the 2008-18 period, faster than the average for all occupations. Providing quality customer service is important to nearly every company in the economy; in addition, companies are expected to place increasing emphasis on customer relationships, resulting in increased demand for customer service representatives. This very large occupation is projected to provide about 400,000 new jobs over the next decade.

Customer service representatives are especially prevalent in the finance and insurance industry, as many customer interactions do not require physical contact. Employment of customer service representatives in this industry is expected to increase 9 percent over the 2008-18 period.

Although technology has tempered growth of this occupation to some degree, it has also created many opportunities for growth. For instance, online banking has reduced the need for telephone banking services. At the same time, however, it has increased the need for customer service representatives who assist users with banking Web sites. Additionally, online services create many new opportunities for customer support representatives as companies that operate on the Internet provide customer service by telephone.

In the past, many companies chose to relocate their customer service call centers in foreign countries, which led to layoffs in some industries. Although many companies continue to offshore some of their customer service jobs, this is becoming less prevalent than in the past. While it continues to be less expensive to hire workers overseas, many companies have found that foreign workers do not have the same cultural sensitivity as those located within the United States.

Job prospects. Prospects for obtaining a job in this field are expected to be good, with more job openings than jobseekers. In particular, bilingual jobseekers should enjoy excellent opportunities. Rapid job growth, coupled with a large number of workers who leave the occupation each year, should make finding a job as a customer service representative relatively easy.

While jobs in some industries may be affected by economic downturns, customer service representatives are not as vulnerable to layoffs as some other workers. This is, in part, because many customer service representatives work in industries where customers have accounts. While customers may have less money to spend, and as a result may choose to purchase fewer goods or services, they continue to have customer service needs. For instance, during an economic downturn, individuals may have less money in their bank accounts, but they continue to need banking services and customer service from their banks. Nevertheless, companies do attempt to cut costs during such times, so downsizing is still a possibility.

Projections Data

Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2008 Projected
Employment, 2018
Number Percent
Customer service representatives 43-4051 2,252,400 2,651,900 399,500 18
NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.

Earnings for CSRs

In May 2008, median hourly wages of customer service representatives were $14.36. The middle 50 percent earned between $11.34 and $18.27. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $9.15, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $23.24.

Earnings for customer service representatives vary according to level of skill required, experience, training, location, and size of firm. Median hourly wages in the industries employing the largest numbers of these workers in May 2008 were:

Insurance carriers $15.74
Agencies, brokerages, and other insurance related activities 15.28
Depository credit intermediation 14.56
Employment services 12.73
Business support services 11.56

In addition to receiving an hourly wage, full-time customer service representatives who work evenings, nights, weekends, or holidays may receive shift differential pay. Also, because call centers are often open during extended hours, or even 24 hours a day, some customer service representatives have the benefit of being able to work a schedule that does not conform to the traditional workweek. Other benefits can include life and health insurance, pensions, bonuses, employer-provided training, and discounts on the products and services the company offers.

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