Why Service Workers Are Now More Important Than Software Engineers

Here we are, still facing the pandemic, and now we’re in a panic about service workers. Coffee shops, restaurants, and even gas stations can’t find staff, so they’re being “forced” to raise wages. In a recent NYT podcast a hotel owner bemoans how his employees keep asking for more money because “they don’t have the work ethic to clean his rooms.”

I think it’s time to wake up. The service economy is now the center of the economy, and service workers are the new high-tech workers. In fact I would argue, despite what I hear about from almost every CHRO, that service workers are now even more important than software engineers. Without a strong service organization and a sound set of practices to hire, care for, and support service teams, your company will never grow.

How did we get here? Wasn’t digital transformation supposed to make everything “Self-Service” so we don’t need so many people?

Well despite the huge growth in tech, the opposite has occurred. While we have automated our emails, zoom meetings, transcription, and other information services, the rest of our life is entirely dependent on service. Try going to a restaurant, getting on a plane, or picking up the phone to call your service provider or bank. It’s the quality of the service worker that makes or breaks your experience.

Suddenly, despite all the great tech you use at Amazon or Peet’s coffee, it’s the delivery driver or barista that makes or breaks your experience. And this is even more true now than ever.

As Amanda Mull eloquently describes in her article “The Customer Is Always Wrong” in The Atlantic, our expectations for service have skyrocketed. People expect to be able to behave badly in the plane, refuse to wear a mask, and berate the waitress as part of our “privilege.” Of course, many of us would never act this way, but as her article points out, the number of out-of-control consumers is skyrocketing. (Airline unruly passenger complaints this year are at the highest level since 1995.)

And as she describes, a lot of this is because we feel we “deserve” good service. If I’m going to pay $1000 for a cell phone, for example, I expect the AT&T rep to be knowledgeable, well-trained, and empathetic to my needs. In fact, if my high-priced tech doesn’t work (and this includes Workday, Degreed, or whatever you buy), I’m pretty upset if someone doesn’t fix it fast. (There is an entire Twitter feed dedicated to people complaining about Workday, for example).

It’s not because technology isn’t great – it is. It’s is because our economic center has shifted. When more and more of our consumer life is digitized, the “non-digital part” becomes even more important than ever. So you, as an employer, have to spend even more time and money on your service teams, service organization, and service workers.

Right now we’re experiencing one of the biggest talent gaps in service work I’ve seen. I cannot remember a time when cooks, delivery drivers, and baristas were in such demand yet such short supply. EMSI, a labor economics company, tells us that truck drivers, nurses, home health aids, and retail workers are by far the fastest growing part of the economy. And these are the jobs with such small supply of workers.

(New EMSI data shows that of the 14 Million jobs now open, more than 3 million are in “service roles.”)

What can employers do? Start to think about service workers the way we have thought about software engineers.

In the last economic crisis (around 2000) companies started lavishing benefits, perks, and pay to software engineers. Java developers and data scientists started making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year, and the trend never stopped. Today a great software engineer can easily make six figures in most cities and there are many making half a million or more.

Well that workforce segment, as important as it has become, makes up less than 7% of the total workforce. The “Service Economy” is more than five times bigger, and it’s time for us to take care of them too.

It’s interesting to me that every company now has an Employee Experience program and is now spending tons of money focus on hybrid work, wellbeing, and all sorts or new tools to make people more productive. (Read our newest research Employee Experience: The Definitive Guide for more). Well it’s time to focus that attention on the call center workers, the drivers, the front-line staff, and the operations team. These people, who probably make far less money than the white-collar managers or IT staff, are now the center of the customer experience.

And this is not that hard to do.

Over my years as an analyst, I’ve interviewed Wegman’s, Starbucks, Hilton, Target, Wal-Mart, American Express, Four Seasons, and hundreds of other companies that pay very close attention to their service professionals. And I do call them “professionals.” While customer service may seem like an “entry-level job” to many of you, it’s actually an entire profession.  (American Express, for example, hires customer service agents who have worked in hospitality, not people with IT backgrounds.)

Think about a nurse, salesperson, or customer service representative. They, just like you, have to learn how to listen to people, take care of their needs, and endless amount of detail about your company and its products. At Pacific Bell, my wife’s old employer, the customer service reps were kings and queens. Not only were they highly trained and well paid, there were contests, rewards, and all sorts of incentives to keep them happy. Why? Because in a recurring revenue business like telecom (like cloud today), losing a customer is a disaster. The telcos figured this out years ago.

Now we all need to figure this out. Airlines, food service companies, and even software and pharmaceutical companies have to take customer service seriously. If you don’t, you’ll lose these people and your brand will suffer.

I’ve learned this over and over in our business. We are in the business of serving HR professionals and their teams, so a “servant culture” has always been at our core. We call people back immediately, we take every inquiry seriously, and we never stop trying until our clients are fully happy. How do we do this? We hire, train, and support people who love this kind of work.

And don’t forget that service workers need service too. Service workers have to bear the brunt of your customers’ frustrations, so taking care of them is also your job. I particularly like the restaurant in Cape Cod that gave its workers a day off this summer as a “day of kindness” because customers were so frustrated. If you take care of your service workers, they’ll take care of your customers.

This is not just a problem of raising wages, this is a problem of focus. Now is the time to take good care of front-line and service workers, and it’s about time we paid attention.

Additional Resources

Rethinking Recruiting In The New Economy

Employee Experience 4.0: From Signal To Action

The Voice Of The Employee: New Course In The Josh Bersin Academy

The Alternative Workforce: Why It’s Not So Alternative Any More