The Right Wrong Turns: Using Unexpected Experience to Catapult Your Career


I just knew that when I graduated I would be a campaign ‘bigwig’ in my home state of Texas. Mind you, I graduated in December of 2009 at what is now seen as the height of the recession, so in a very egotistical way I thought I was thoroughly above ‘menial’ positions. So I took a ‘temporary’ job with a big box retailer in the Home Improvement industry (think orange…) and was hired on as an associate, fully intending to leave within a year.

The funny thing about getting into a business you’ve never been interested in before is that you see a whole new perspective and industry that you never knew the extent of. I thought ‘retail’ was just selling stuff; naïve I know, but I was amazed at the intertwined professions that came along with the business: operational logistics, buying, market analysis, advertisement, communications, contract negotiations, human resources. As an outsider, you see the finished product, and the mark of a good company brand is that the customer takes it at face value but the true battles lie far beyond the cash registers; it was all about the vision and how each piece played a supporting role.

Customer service was preached day in and day out: everything revolved around ‘find a way to say yes’ and we did whatever we could to resolve issues and make ‘customers for life’.

We all feel the budget belt cinching tighter and tighter to accommodate shortfalls; We like to think we are business minded but being solely focused on the bottom dollar is not the best approach (I know alarms are going off if the Controllers’ minds, hang with me). Imagine if the government took a ‘Customers First’ approach.

Here’s what I learned from retail that I take with me each day:

Create Black Friday: No, I’m not talking stampeding throngs of overzealous shoppers but I am talking about the buzz of energy that’s revitalizing, contagious and ever prevalent through the holiday season. The citizen (or customer) experience should be just as precisely thought through as with any business to create an atmosphere of engagement and interaction that will imbibe a sense of satisfaction unprecedented in the arena of government. Interactive displays, mobile accessibility, updated common spaces–and a general impression that we are not here by accident and that the customer is not the obstacle to overcome but the reason we are here to serve–will drive home the image of a ‘Customers First’ approach.

‘You Only Get One Chance at a First Impression’: **Warning: clichés** (but we can’t afford to ignore them, they’re true.) Creating ‘customers for life’ starts before they arrive. What does your parking look like? What does your website look like? How helpful were you on the phone when the citizen called? If the citizen runs into the employee who’s having a bad day the word of mouth reputation, the Yelp reviews and the angry emails will do damage faster than you can put out the fire. Here’s another cliché: ‘There’s more than one way to skin a cat’ and if we can’t work with our citizens, they will find a way to go elsewhere and you can bet that will affect budget, attitudes and perception. It’s also hard to ever recover from a bad impression. For example, think of that gas station with the highest prices in the city. You know where it is, you drive by it every day and you vow you won’t waste your money there even if it means running out and walking to the next station because you just won’t deal with those people. Even if they were to lower their prices, your perception of their service history is so bad that you won’t ever be their patron. The same goes for government offices: citizen perception can reach a low that is hard to recover from. Make sure your first impression is a good one.

Find a Way to Say ‘Yes!’: If your government office is anything like my government office you get questions from citizens every day that have nothing to do with the work you perform because they assume we are all one big happy family (which would be amazing, by the way, but I digress…). But that doesn’t mean you can’t be a great resource. An extra minute of your time to connect them with another person, help them with directions to their next errand, or clear up common misconceptions about your work in an understanding manner may not mean a lot to you but will help shift the conversation from ‘the government that does the minimal amount required’ to ‘the government that was there for me through all of my questions.’ Find a way to help answer their questions even if ‘that’s not your job.’

These focuses will not only create a more successful and enjoyable culture for your teams and citizens but it will eventually improve your efficiencies and, yes, your bottom dollar (See Controllers? I’m looking out for you still).

While you may not be in a totally different field than you hope — maybe it’s  a different position or division or area of focus instead — don’t miss the opportunity to learn everything you can where you are. Those lessons and knowledge will give a fresh perspective you may have never imagined.

My ‘temporary’ retail job gave me immeasurable experience that catapulted me beyond just the required qualifications for my current position. In the back of my mind, I knew that I would not be in retail for my whole career but I am so glad that that’s where I started. Don’t miss the chance to learn and grow where you are so you can take a whole litany of skills with you as you advance in your career.

Kellen Sweny is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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