They say to work in PR you have to have the best of the best in communication skills. Now you can study these skills at university or on a night out, but nothing will teach you the art of communication better than a job that requires you to work face-to-face with the general public.
As someone who has spent 4 years in retail and a further 2 years working in the travel industry for a shipping company, I’ve had my fair share of time with the general public. And because of this, I’ve learned the hard way that the general public will challenge your ability to communicate professionally and push you dangerously close to crossing that unprofessional line. So, I thought I would share some of the nuggets of knowledge ive gained in my career so far and how they could benefit you in a job in the future.
- Non-Verbal Communication – there is no skill you will build more than the ability to control your non-verbal forms of communication. We’ve all been there. It’s 5.29pm and you’ve 1 minute left of your shift. You’re thinking about getting home to your dinner and a glass of wine when all of a sudden a face appears at the door. Now you want to give the customer the benefit of the doubt, maybe they didn’t check their watch or maybe they just need to grab something quickly. We all know this is not the chase. Usually it’s a woman who believes the entire shop will stay open just for them to come in and have a little look about. It is at this moment the anger and the resentment starts to creep into your face. But you smile through it, because even though they’ve ruined your night (albeit 5 minutes of it) it’s the professional thing to do.
- Embracing Shift Work – PR for the most part is a 9-5.30pm job, Monday to Friday. But jobs like retail and travel, are most certainly not. There’s nothing a student loves more than good Saturday shift followed by a Sunday shift to wipe out their social plans, hence the various student nights during the week. You never get to experience that ‘Friday Feeling’ those professional folk talk about because the weekend means work. But the one thing shift work will teach you, is the ability to work well with little sleep and to be flexible. One night I’ll work 6pm – 11pm and then the next day work 6am – 3.30pm. That’s dedication to the job and to a complete lack of sleep. But you do it and you live. It also proves to future employers that you can make time for work and are committed to the company, at least that’s what I tell myself at 5am.
- The customer is not always right – its probably the most cliched saying when it comes to work, but I can confirm that the customer is not always right, but they certainly think that they are. I’ll take an example of this from a few days ago at my part time job. I work for a ferry company and on this night, I was checking in vehicles that were traveling over to Scotland. Like most travel companies such as airlines etc, if you’ve made a mistake in your booking, you are liable to a cost to change such mistake. It happens more often than you would think but customers often book their travel arrangements the wrong way around. So instead of sailing from NI to Scotland, they’ve done Scotland to NI. Now most people who make this mistake are a little embarrassed but generally are happy for you to amend the mistake which can incur a cost. But there’s always that one customer who believes you are doing this simply to annoy them. I can confirm we are not. The first sentence that usually leaves the mouths of those who believe that the customer is always right is ‘are you sure?’. Yes I am. I’m not making it up for a laugh, you’ve done it wrong. On the night in question I had this from a gentleman who had booked the wrong. Now the important thing here is that, this was not my mistake, this was his. But given the 10 minutes this man spent yelling in my face about how much I was making his journey hell (by fixing his mistake so he could actually travel) and his threats to travel with the rival company instead of paying the amendment fees (which would have cost a lot more than the payment I needed from him) he did in fact prove to me that the general public will blame anyone if it means not admitting their own mistakes, and they seem to think you are their verbal punching bag.
Now don’t get me wrong, I will never be rude to a customer, you can be as rude to me as you like and I won’t yell or be rude back. But if someone continues to yell at me, I will not go out of my way to help them unsurprisingly.
These are just 3 examples of the things ive learned working in a job that puts me face-to-face with the general public. Stay calm, smile when you have to, always be flexible and remember in a situation where you are the one with the knowledge of how your profession works, more often than not you will be in the right, not someone with little experience in what you do for living.
These are skills that can be taken to every single job and it’s why I believe that only once you’ve spent time working with the general public are you ready for a job in communications, because only then do you understand the way in which you should hold yourself in the professional world.
Kirsty Wallace is a final year BSc Public Relations student at Ulster University. She can be contacted at www.linkedin.com/in/kirsty-wallace-851504115 and on Twitter @KayyWallace