You need money! (Don’t we all?)

So you’ve started college and are finding yourself strapped for cash, what with the need for things like books and food. Or maybe you’re about to go to college and need to start saving up to afford said materials and sustenance. The bottom line is that you need a job and, at this point in your life, your options are limited.

So what is someone with a slim résumé to do?

Allow me to introduce you to the wonderful world of customer service *off-key kazoo fanfare*. You know it, you don’t love it, but you do reap the benefits of it—kind of like that one relative who gives you good birthday money but always makes a scene at family reunions. Now, I know working customer service doesn’t have the best reputation. After all, how many horror stories have we heard from current and past retail or food-service employees? It’s definitely hard to get excited about a line of work that is notoriously stressful—and sometimes your only option. Not to mention you’re a full-time college student on top of everything else, maybe with some clubs and sports to boot. However, not all hope is lost. Believe it or not, there are ways to not just manage but thrive in a customer-service job amid the chaos and responsibilities of your student life. 

The rewards of working during college

Even if you don’t know exactly what working a customer-service job entails, you probably have at least some impression about the downsides, such as terrible customers and fellow staff who either can’t seem to do their job or just have it out for you for some reason. Here’s the thing: you are going to encounter those sorts of problems in nearly every line of work. It’s unfortunately a fact of life, but being able to come to terms with that absolutely makes working in customer service more tolerable. You can also get an abundance of really great things out of working this type of job (besides money)

  • Time management and structure. If this is something you’re not good at naturally, having a job forces you to get good at it because you have to start planning around your work schedule.
  • Personal accountability. If you’re a baseline-decent person by nature, then you probably care that your actions affect other people. Being in a work environment where the things you do can affect all of your coworkers and customers develops a sense of personal accountability (or at least improves on it).
  • Adapting to fast-paced work environments. If you can survive customer service, you can survive anything.
  • Work experience. Any and all work experience is good, and everyone has to start somewhere.
  • Meeting people. Even though customer service is notorious for attracting some not-so-pleasant people, you will also get the opportunity to meet some amazing people as well, both customers and coworkers alike. 
  • Empathy. As the YouTuber TheOdd1sOut says in his famous Work Stories (sooubway) video, “Everyone should work retail or customer service at least once in their life. But like, only for six months or something like that. Just to know what it’s like.” I agree with him. There’s something about being in service workers’ shoes that changes your whole perspective.
  • Having something productive to do unrelated to school. It can be mentally and emotionally draining to channel all of your energy into doing just one thing. Having a job keeps you busy, while taking your mind off school for at least a little bit.  

How to know where to look

So you’ve determined two important factors: (1) you need a job, and (2) you’re willing and able to do customer service. But customer service is still pretty vague. There’s obviously retail and food service, which are pretty self-explanatory, but you’ll need to decide between working customer service at a small local business and working at a large franchise—both of which have definite upsides and downsides.

Working at a small business

  • It’s a more personal work environment.
  • You’ll support a local business.
  • The hours of operation are generally a little smaller than at large chains, so if your schedule meshes with their hours well, you’re more likely to get the job.
  • For better or for worse, owners and/or management are often wearing multiple hats and are likely to be more involved.
  • There is less competition when applying. 
  • It’s a great way to start getting work experience .
  • You’ll be more hands-on, with food service in particular.

Working at a chain

  • Your hours are typically more flexible due to longer hours of operation and more staff.
  • You’ll often be eligible for benefits.
  • You’ll have to follow more rules (i.e., corporate policies). 
  • There’s more competition when applying.
  • You’re more vulnerable to the general public because large franchises tend to attract more clientele.
  • You’ll have greater upward mobility because large companies have more management positions available or jobs within their corporate offices that you can transfer to.
  • You’ll be transferable (especially important if you want to stay with a company but aren’t going to be living in the same place full-time).

Once you’ve determined your preference between working at a small business or at a large franchise, another great way to narrow down your search is to get some employee insight. Just going to the place and saying that you’ve thought about applying and asking a current employee whether they like it there is helpful. You can even go online to sites like Reddit and YouTube to find employees sharing their experiences (just know that you’re really only going to find stories about large chains). 

Another important thing to look out for in general is what the business offers its employees besides pay. Some places offer great employee benefits; others offer none at all. Look into them and what the eligibility requirements are, such as how many hours you need to work per week or how long you need to be employed. Take that into consideration if you need health insurance or maybe even want to start a 401k. 

Getting the job

I’d venture to guess you are not the only college student who needs a job reading this article. Ergo, there is going to be competition for these jobs. Customer service has very few barriers to entry and is a first job for many, many people. So what can you do during the application process to increase your chances of getting hired?

  • Go to the places you want to apply to, and ask if they’re hiring. Even if the application is online, go to the actual storefront or business because you don’t want to send in an application to a place that doesn’t actually need more people. And if you ask at a location that isn’t currently hiring, they may be able to direct you to a different location that is.
  • Try to get acquainted with management during the application process. Introducing yourself will make you stand out.
  • If you’re applying for a food-service job, get your food-handler’s certification before going to the interview. This shows the interviewer you’ve done your research and are well prepared. You’ll also be able to start working sooner because if they hire you, they won’t have to wait for you to get certified.
  • Emphasize your customer-service and people skills during the interview. This is the name of the game after all. And most businesses have a “core mission” that you can find with just a quick Google search. Try to tailor your responses during an interview to it. 

You got the job! Here’s how to keep yourself from dying inside (even more)

The big issue looming over the very idea of working in customer service is, well, the customers. You’re going to come across entitled, unknowledgeable, and flat-out mean and nasty people, and you’re going to have to provide them service with a smile. How should you deal with this?

  • Take pride in the fact that at least you know how to behave appropriately in public, and respond accordingly to minor inconveniences.
  • Laugh it off! These kinds of experiences can make for some great stories. A grown adult throwing a temper tantrum over a burger is kind of hilarious. You can even ask your coworkers or other people in customer service what their worst or craziest customer experience was if you’re in the mood for some quality entertainment. 

Now, what about surviving in general? After all, you’re a full-time student, and now you’ve taken on a job with a whole new set of responsibilities that can get pretty mentally and emotionally demanding in their own right. So how do you make time for school work and work work? And how do you make your life at work just a little bit easier?

  • Communicate to your employer that you are a full-time student. Students make up a pretty large chunk of customer-service workers, and your employer should be more than understanding of that. In this same vein, be firm about when you are available to work. Do not skip class or studying for an exam because of work.
  • Give as much advance notice as you possibly can regarding time off for exams, sports, clubs, etc. If you have to scramble to cover your shift, that’s only going to add to your stress and may put your job in jeopardy if you aren’t able to find coverage.
  • Try to fit in at least one day of the week when you don’t have to go to work or class. Rest and relaxation are important and are going to serve your productivity and mental health better than burning the candle at both ends 24/7.
  • Try to build your work schedule around your school schedule rather than the other way around. Take into consideration not just when you’re going to be in class but also time to do homework, eat, and have a social life. 

Having a job and being a student is hard; there really is no way to sugarcoat it. But the more time you spend as a working student, the more the good days begin to outweigh the bad and the results will outweigh the drawbacks. Your time- and stress-management skills will improve exponentially, even if it may take awhile. And when the time comes, you’ve graduated from college, and you’ve perhaps left the world of customer service, you’ll be armed with an arsenal of valuable work experience—and some great stories. 

Good luck, everybody!