An updated version of this story from March, 2019 can be found here: Go Big or Go Home! A Giant of Customer Care on How to “Buck” the Status Quo
James "Buck" Buckingham is a study in contrasts - he's part hype man, part drill sergeant, part mother hen, all wrapped in the cloak of an inspirational speaker that would give Tony Robbins pause. He's friendly and approachable, yet an intimidating presence: At 6-foot-6 and, by his own estimate, nearly 450 pounds, you know when he enters a room - even if that room is a massive call center in Nashville bristling with several hundred employees.
“I’m definitely the biggest guy in this building,” he says with a laugh.
The building is one of T-Mobile's Customer Care Experience Centers. Buck, 36, is a coach for the Team of Experts, the company's human solution to shoddy customer care. Unlike typical call center representatives who are overly specialized in just one area, T-Mobile Experts are trained to personally handle and resolve calls from start to finish - more account supervisors with clients than simple switchboard operators - and this new model calls for a whole new breed of leadership.
Teams of 40 serve a specific area, and Buck serves one of those teams. He offers a lot more than a typical customer care manager - by way of uplift, motivation and the occasional shoulder to cry on to his frontline team. A role for which his Renaissance man background and impressive stature made him an ideal candidate.
"I don't like excuses and, as you can tell from my background, I've never really been in a place where excuses were acceptable. So, there may be a reason for something, but there should never be an excuse."
Buck grew up in Columbus, GA, and joined the Air Force right out of high school in November of 2000. "I went all around the world a couple times," he says. "My first duty station was Misawa Air Base in Japan. That was a different culture for a young kid from Georgia. But it was fun. I loved Japan. While I was there I was part of what we called PICP, the PACAF (Pacific Air Forces) Initial Communications Package. We were mobile comm. I was an E-3, airman first class. I set up networks in the field. Anything, basically, that happened in the Eastern Hemisphere, we would be among the first communications guys to go out."
Then came 9/11, and a seismic shift in his service: "We were deployed to Afghanistan right after. We were a communications unit, but we weren't attached to any Marines or Army unit or anything like that. We were our only protection. It was tough."
After his four years were up, Buck decided to forge a career elsewhere in the government - first the Army Corps of Engineers, then the Department of Energy - relying on his technical training in the Air Force to branch out into IT. As he bounced from town to town with each new job, he also moonlighted as a successful semi-pro football lineman, even taking home a championship trophy or two.
“It’s hard for me to not play football, because of my size,” he says, again with a laugh. “Most places I go, somebody asks me to play on a football team somewhere.”
Eventually, he got a taste for something a little different, and the former airman decided to take a flyer: He put his GI Bill to use, and enrolled in culinary school at the Atlanta outpost of famed Parisian cooking institution Le Cordon Bleu, and set out to live a chef's life, indulging in his passion for the pit: "In culinary school, I wrote six different papers about barbecue," he says. "Any piece of meat that I can smoke, I will make it the best you've ever had."
While working the line, he met his future wife, a Nashville native. Love won out, and Buck soon found himself calling Music City home, too. But restaurant work that paid a living wage proved hard to come by, and with a baby on the way and a stepson already in tow, three years ago he decided to hang up his chef's whites and, at a family member's urging, took a frontline job working the phones at the T-Mobile call center.
As with everything before, Buck’s focus and determination made him a star player — but his manager thought his skills and personality would be better suited as a team leader, and quickly called him up to be a coach.
"There were three things I saw in Buck off hand," says that manager, Brian Thomas. "Respect, drive and discipline, in that order. I knew those three traits would be perfect for our site and company." Along with that thing that is unique to Buck: "His ability to command a room with his presence."
But there's another aspect to Buck's success in the role, one that speaks to the size of his heart: "I believe that coaching has to be somewhat fluid, because everyone has a different skillset, a different personality," he says, a good lesson for team leaders of every stripe. "So, if you have a rigid, blanket style of coaching, then you're not going to get everyone with that. You're either going to lose people's interest, or you're not going to gain their trust."
Yes, Buck's size may set him apart, but it's his character, dedication and ambition that make him stand out in a crowd. Well, that, and his world-class ribs.