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What Seven Years in Prison Taught Me About Managing and Respecting the Customer Experience

What Seven Years in Prison Taught Me About Managing and Respecting the Customer Experience

/ Strategy, Customer Experience
What Seven Years in Prison Taught Me About Managing and Respecting the Customer Experience

A leader’s personal journey begins with learning the value of listening, empathy and building relationships.

My first taste of customer experience (or what we referred to at the time as customer service) was in a bar. I was behind it, and I was really good. It takes a combination of personality, skill, savvy and charisma, and a strong knowledge of drinks, to be successful in this role. You also need an emotional toughness and thick skin. Clients aren’t always easy. They can be downright aggressive, at times even mean-spirited, particularly as the evening goes on. Your financial success is tied to tips though, so getting the customer experience right is essential.

My second venture into understanding the customer experience at an even deeper level came in an unlikely place: prison, where I served a seven-year sentence. During this time, I learned more about myself and the customer than I would have anywhere else.

When all your personal rights have been stripped away, it’s a wakeup call. About 10 minutes after my sentencing, I was placed by myself in an unlit room with bland gray walls and one metal cot to wait for transport back to the prison. It began to sink in immediately: I would be there for seven years. I couldn’t fathom the length of time, and I fell to my knees wailing in despair. I don’t know whether I was on that cold cement floor for 20 minutes or an hour, but at some point, a wave of calm came over me, and I felt a powerful force assure me I was there for a reason. I may not find out that “why” until the last day of my sentence, but I would figure it out.

I rose from the floor that day resolved to make the most of my horrific situation. And I knew that my purpose would be to learn something about myself or to impart a lesson onto someone else. The answer, as I would come to find, was both.

Finding My Purpose

About two years into my prison sentence, I heard about a B2B company, Televerde, that operated out of the Women’s Correctional facility in Phoenix. At that time, the company had a small call center where they were hiring, training and highly compensating about 30 incarcerated women to generate qualified leads and accelerate the sales pipeline for their clients.

This was my moment. This was my “why.” While everyone said the interview process and training were rigorous, I was determined to get a coveted role there. I applied but was denied! It was a devastating set-back (not my first, so I was getting really good at perfecting my perspective). What’s great about Televerde is that they don’t just deny you; they guide you. I received some really great feedback, applied it and went back in a second time. Spoiler alert: I just began my 21st year with the company.

Working in a sales role, your day is spent earning a company’s business and delivering a superior customer experience at every touchpoint. To win, you need to have knowledge of their industry and insight into their specific challenges. In the late-’90s, this information wasn’t as readily available as it is today. We didn’t have cutting-edge technology to help capture intelligence on prospects or pinpoint where they were in the buyer’s journey. In fact, we hadn’t even identified the concept of a buyer’s journey yet. Generating leads then relied heavily on just connecting with the people you were calling and talking about features and benefits.

For us working inside a prison, we knew we had to do more and be better than everyone else. We’re a highly stigmatized population so this business model at that time was seen by many as a weakness. We were keen to prove people wrong and to be better than all our competitors. Our goal was to be so good that when companies started the process of outsourcing their inside sales, they had to give us a chance.

You will never find a more knowledgeable team than the ladies who staff Televerde’s prison-run call centers.

To this end, we consumed information. Every piece of intel that was given to us by our clients and employer, we ate up and spat out. This allowed us to have really meaningful conversations with prospects, which was key. The more a prospect could see that we knew what we were talking about, the more in-depth our conversations became. And if these conversations didn’t always translate into a qualified lead, we learned a ton about industries, the challenges companies were facing, and what mattered to the people who were responsible for solving them. It was a view into the outside world.

We took copious notes from our interactions and shared with one another every insight we could glean, no matter how small. One thing that held true then and that still holds true today: You will never find a more knowledgeable team than the ladies who staff Televerde’s prison-run call centers.

CX Lessons Learned

The B2B customer journey is different from that of a B2C where you sell a product to a consumer. In the B2B world, you’re dealing with multiple people at any given time and the buyer is generally different from the end-user. I sometimes think B2B should be renamed B2P (Business of People) because of the number of people you have to win over throughout the lifecycle of the customer journey. Because of this, I had to develop not just the hard skills of my job, but the soft skills needed to close deals, communicate with C-suite execs and collaborate with our clients’ teams.

B2B relationships, I’ve come to learn, need to be felt and experienced more personally than in B2C. For this reason, there are skills you absolutely need to nail in order to master the customer experience in every action, interaction, reaction and transaction you have with clients and prospects. The following are three tips that helped me “skill up” in this area (and I learned each one behind bars).

Be Flexible

If there’s one thing people in prison dislike it’s change. A day in the life of a prisoner pretty much mirrors the life of the character Bill Murray played in “Groundhog’s Day”: It’s repetitive. They wake up, eat and go to bed at the same time. They wear the same clothes. They spend time in the same yard. They see the same faces. Change tends to freak people out. I see this outside of prison, too.

Every company struggles to get their employees to embrace change and to adapt. Here’s the thing, though: Being able to sharpen the customer experience starts with a willingness to be flexible. Being flexible enables companies to successfully navigate the change and complexity of the present with an eye always on the future.

In the simplest terms, change makes us stronger and more knowledgeable. If you’re unwilling to change, adapt and grow, you’ll fail. For me, I look at change as an opportunity to be better. Every situation, regardless of how bad we believe it to be at the time, brings moments to seize. Remember where I started my professional journey? And yet it turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to me. That’s because I focused on the silver linings and the opportunities that came with it. I had the courage to change and adapt, and that has made all the difference.


There’s a saying, “We have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Listening is vital to delivering a superior customer experience consistently. We must be willing to listen intently to our clients and the prospects with whom we’re engaged.

Often when someone is speaking, there is a tendency to focus on what our response will be. When we do this, we aren’t really taking in and understanding the caller’s pain points and challenges. Remember: There isn’t anything that trumps direct feedback from a customer—it’s gold. Customer feedback enables us to see the world as our clients do, which fuels retention, growth and loyalty. What’s more, it allows us to anticipate their needs, which is critical considering that 76% of consumers expect companies to deeply understand their demands and expectations.

To this end, it’s wise to master the art of shutting up and listening. It’s a skill I learned quickly in prison because the consequence of not doing so would have made a seven-year prison sentence feel more like 14!

I’ve learned the importance of valuing and nourishing relationships.

Exercise empathy

I know what you’re thinking. She’s getting all touchy-feely on us. The truth is, empathy matters. Empathy strengthens relationships. Consider the definition: the ability to identify and understand another’s situation, feelings and motives. Simply, it’s putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.

Almost everyone who walks through prison doors believes (mistakenly) that they are better or different than the other people in there. You learn quickly that you aren’t and your thinking evolves—it has to. When you’re doing time, you need to build a tribe to inspire, motivate and lift you higher. It’s what gets you through each day.

As it relates to business, research continues to show a correlation between empathy and stronger business results. As consumers continue to place greater value on their experiences with a company (versus the products, solutions and services) empathy has emerged as a critical soft skill for both leaders and employees. According to a recent report by Walker, 86% of buyers will pay more for a better customer experience and by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator.

In my experience, when we exercise empathy during the sales process, we strengthen our ability to organically bring in other essential skills: curiosity (ask questions that require more than “yes” and “no” answers), trust (an eye always on building and strengthening it), and a willingness to collaborate (it’s “we” never “them”). We enter each client interaction enthusiastically wanting to learn more about the person with whom we’re speaking. We show genuine concern for their challenges. Our body language and tone of voice reflect an authentic desire to help identify the right solutions. When this happens, we connect on a human level and become a partner throughout their journey. The end result: increased revenue and higher customer loyalty.

The Experiences We Create Make or Break Relationships

Having spent time in prison and then following that with a 20-year successful career in the business world, I have accumulated many life-changing lessons. I’ve learned the importance of valuing and nourishing relationships wherever they may be. More than that, I’ve come to understand the profound impact the experiences we create have on people. Whether it’s the customer experience, employee experience or our own personal experiences, how we approach interactions and manage our reactions inform our actions; combined they can make or break relationships in an instant.

As Warren Buffet famously said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”

Michelle Cirocco

Michelle Cirocco

Michelle Cirocco is Chief Social Responsibility Officer for Televerde, the first and only fully integrated sales and marketing technology organization with a proven execution model for generating demand and accelerating sales.

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