Editor’s note: We’re extending International Women’s Day throughout the month of March to celebrate women in support leadership in this 4-part interview series.
Beth Held is a crier.
Overjoyed. Proud. Frustrated. Stressed out. Hopping mad. When Held feels a strong emotion, the tears come flooding out. One might think this would be a deterrent to achieving a high-powered career in customer service. One would be wrong.
On the contrary, Held’s connection to her feelings—and the feelings of those around her—are one of her many strengths as director of call center operations for Micro Center, a computer department store, and one of the top 200 of America’s largest private companies.
It’s one of the many paradoxes that lie within this fiercely empathetic leader, who is also hyper-organized, methodical, and refuses to be daunted by challenges that leave others throwing up their hands in surrender. Oh, and she actively “chooses joy” every day, in every way.
We’ll get to that later. First, you need to get to know Held’s approach to efficiently building a career that matters.
The journey to a call center transformation
Held was a banker for 25 years before joining Micro Center in 2014. She started as a teller and, over time, worked her way up to become a district manager overseeing multiple branches. Never content to linger too long in any position she felt she’d mastered, she snapped up an intriguing opportunity to run Huntington National Bank’s call center in 2004.
At the time, Held had zero experience in that capacity—which was precisely the point. “The director was looking for people with banking experience, but no call center experience. He wanted to create a banking office mentality in the call center.”
She was thrilled to bring her relationship-building experience to a new environment and share it with people who were on the front lines every day. Her long ascent through the ranks meant that she understood the jobs of all of her employees because she’d once held them. She brought that same “we’re all in this together” mentality to the call center.
“I knew that I needed to do everything I could to make employees lives as pleasant and easy as possible,” she said.
Her long ascent through the ranks meant that she understood the jobs of all of her employees because she'd once held them.
Not surprisingly, customer service proved to be Held’s forte. She continued to manage Huntington’s call center for four years before moving on to JPMorgan Chase, first as VP of Customer Request Management and then as VP of Business Analysis Management.
Overhauling the customer experience at Micro Center
Meanwhile, Micro Center was looking to re-envision its customer service model. They wanted a system they could scale, to lean on data to make changes, and to add digital support.
With 25 stores across the country, only a fraction were centralized to a call group. Individual stores were responsible for handling basic calls and in-person contacts, not online and technical support. Recognizing it needed to open one call center to streamline customer service, it started by recruiting for a dynamic, forward-thinker for a brand new call center director position.
Enter Held—who knew she could build a model appropriately based on the right data. She quickly learned she had her work cut out for her on a number of levels.
Starting from scratch
“My initial objective was to build a call center that would handle calls for every store. That took two years,” she said.
Crucial to this first mission was figuring out the volume of calls for each store. Held discovered that while the number of phone operators per store was consistent, the volume was not. This meant the overall abandon rate could be improved upon. “I started by literally getting down on paper what needed to happen to transition each store to a call center. I had a checklist and scheduled calls with the store, organized IT functions, and figured out the hiring that needed to happen,” she said.
Once she’d created the steps and structure for the first stores’ customer support function to be transferred to the call center, she was able to repeat it for each store down the line. Still, it took every bit of that two-year timeline. “I have a water bottle in my office that I gave everybody that says, ‘We did it 8-1-16’ to commemorate the day the call center was responsible for every store.”
Today, the Micro Center call center has grown by approximately 50 percent and handles calls and tech support for all 25 retail stores. A team of supervisors oversee the center and report directly to Held. Savings from the centralization efforts are in the high six figures—and the team has reduced the abandon call rate by a whopping 88 percent.
With the call center in place, she turned her attention to the “incredibly outdated technology. The chat solution we had was not user-friendly, not customer-friendly, and seemed like it was run by one guy out of his mother’s basement. It was silly. Also, the way we were ‘tracking calls’ was very antiquated. It was impossible to get reporting on, impossible to update and the agents hated it because it took too long.”
Updating Micro Center’s solution, and adding chat and text support, was a huge boost to the customer experience and to employee morale. “We are a tech nerd paradise. Our customers are very tech savvy, so the text function has been incredibly well-received. Our customers and agents love it equally,” she said.
Building one team and managing the employee experience
When Held joined Micro Center, there were two factions: technical support and retail operators. “Their offices were right next door to each other, but they were completely separate,” she explained. “The first Christmas I was at Micro Center, tech support was twiddling their thumbs while the retail operators were getting hammered.”
This divide required some extreme flexing of her people skills. Held worked hard to abolish the ‘us vs. them’ mentality that had set in over the years. By working on professional relationships and putting in place some new workflows and policies, she was able to find efficiencies. Today, the two groups work as one big team and they back each other up when volume is high. “My supervisors are responsible for all the numbers across the call center. If one division’s numbers are bad, we all lose,” said Held. “People understanding that we’re all one big team has been a huge win.”
Held worked hard to abolish the 'us vs. them' mentality that had set in over the years. By working on professional relationships and putting in place some new workflows and policies, she was able to find efficiencies.
With a longstanding commitment to ensuring employees feel satisfied and rewarded, Held works hard to foster a call center culture that values relationships.
“One of the other things I’ve learned is that building individual relationships is critical, including knowing people’s names and what’s important to them outside of work. That’s hard to do the bigger your team gets. You need to instill that in your supervisors, so they know how to help motivate, encourage and understand the people who report to them.”
She strives to create a workplace that leads with empathy—with customers, but also with each other. “When somebody who is usually upbeat comes in the door and isn’t talking to anybody, someone needs to say, ‘Something is off, are you okay? Is there something you need? Do you need to get out of here early? Do you need to be on chat all day because you’re not in the space where you can do a good job talking to customers? What can I do?’”
Growing through growing pains
All great leaders have their Achilles Heel. Held says her ambitious and energetic nature occasionally overrode her relationship skills at the outset. The desire to create the call center got her into a few tight spots as she transformed a siloed customer service organization into a holistic one.
“It’s not that I was trying to come in like a bull in a china shop, but my boss gave me a job to do and had full confidence in me and I was ready to create real change. However, there were times when I had to temper that a bit,” she admitted.
She points to the nuanced way she ultimately had to create and manage individual relationships with each store’s general manager across the country. “There were some who I’m sure thought I came out too strong and too aggressive, with strict marching orders. Over time, I realized I needed to partner with them as opposed to just directing them.”
Managing the day-to-day relationships with her reporting supervisors, who had all been with Micro Center for much longer than Held, proved to be even more of a challenge at the outset. “There were nights I went home in tears. But I just realized it would take longer with some people and I needed to be patient to figure them out,” she said.
Her determination to create an efficient and harmonious workplace was what got her through the early days. Along with a never-give-up mindset. “When I start managing a group, I will tell them flat out that I spend more time with them than with the guy I love. I am not going to walk in here and be miserable or work with miserable people. We’re going to make this work,” she said.
Scaling health hurdles, with support
Throughout her tenure at Micro Center, Held has been managing another huge project: her health.
While she was interviewing with the company in the spring of 2014, she learned that she carried a gene mutation that greatly increased her risk of developing breast cancer. Her oncologist strongly urged her to have a preventative mastectomy.
“It became apparent that I was going to be offered the Micro Center job—and my surgery was scheduled the following week.”
She was transparent. “I told them I would be off for eight weeks and asked if they still wanted to offer me the job. They said they’d wait.”
Thrilled with Micro Center’s flexibility, she was amped up to get started when her recovery period ended. And then she encountered another setback. “Within a month of starting the job, I had an infection. And then another. And another.”
Over the course of the next 21 months, she had 10 surgeries. “Every time, I’d call my boss in tears and tell him, ‘I’m having surgery tomorrow.’ I’d be off Thursday and Friday and back at work Monday.”
In the fall of 2015, she required a major surgery and needed to be out for two months. Afterwards, she worked from home for a month. “My boss has been incredibly supportive and I’m incredibly loyal to him because of that. This experience has taught me that you’ve got to understand that there are a whole lot of things going on outside of work, for everyone. I’ve always been empathetic and this has made me even more so,” she said.
Leadership lessons learned
Over the years, Held has learned the importance of being as kind to herself as she aims to be with others. “One of the questions that came up in the panel I sat on at the Relate conference [in November 2018] was about imposter syndrome. I say, ‘Don’t be so damned hard on yourself. We all worked hard to get where we are, don’t take that lightly.’”
She also believes strongly in having a mentor to help you find your way. “It’s important to find someone who will be a truth-teller for you and help you identify what you need to work on, as well as acknowledge the things you do really well,” she said.
“You’ve got to have cheerleaders and also people who will hit you between the eyes with, ‘This is what you’ve got to change or you won’t be successful.’”
"It's important to find someone who will be a truth-teller for you and help you identify what you need to work on, as well as acknowledge the things you do really well." - Beth Held
One of her mentors is a woman who was her manager 25 years ago and with whom she keeps in regular contact. “Deb has taught me some really valuable lessons,” Held said.
Including the tough truth that being direct is not always the best approach. “She showed me that some people need a softer approach. It doesn’t mean I need to be less confident or that my message is less important; I just need a different way of communicating sometimes.”
Held tries to pay it forward by participating as a mentor in a women’s leadership group and a local call center networking group.
Laughing, a counterbalance
Held may be a cryer, but she also laughs. A lot.
“You can hear me laugh a mile away. People come into my office and say, ‘What just happened?’ Agents tell me that customers on the phone hear me laughing. I love laughing at myself.”
It may come from the mantra she developed after overcoming her health challenges: Choose joy.
“It’s my license plate. I have signs that say it everywhere, and I’m thinking about a tattoo,” she said. “I believe you have a choice every single day of how you’re going to approach things and, it’s harder some days than others, but choosing joy is incredibly important to me.”
At the end of every day, she writes a short note about what brought her joy that day, folds it up and pops it into a jar. “On New Year’s Day every year, I look back on all the amazing things that made me happy the year before.” It’s a reminder that choosing joy brings… well, joy.
Held credits her positive outlook for helping her maintain balance and find energy and enthusiasm for her work, and for a rich personal life that includes a long-time boyfriend, a golden retriever, and 15-pound cat. After all, tears of happiness are a thing, too.