Contact Centers: Smooth Operators

FRAMINGHAM (08/15/2000) - For a brief period last winter, Lisa Huss toyed with the idea of quitting her job. A customer service representative at transportation and logistics provider Schneider National Inc. in Green Bay, Wis., Huss had an offer for a similar position in the transportation department of a local company. After talks with her managers that led to a promotion and a raise, she changed her mind.

"One of the issues we are clearly faced with in [this] job market is finding quality associates, and the fact that you've got a Lisa with two years of experience means there is a future here for her," says Todd Jadin, director of network planning at CIO-100 honoree Schneider, who convinced Huss to stay with the company. "My obligation in this organization is not to lose quality associates."

Enticing customer service reps to come aboard and stay aboard, even when the company is considered the crme de la crme, is getting trickier. In fact, the 117 members of the Customer Contact Strategy Forum, a Toronto-based organization for North American call center executives, say their biggest challenge is recruiting the right people. "Our members come in all the time saying they can't find people," says Sarah Kennedy, president of the forum.

"The skill demand in the call center industry is going through the roof." It's not enough anymore to find a customer service rep who can field phone and fax queries. Companies now need a "universal agent" who can handle Web-based questions too, Kennedy says, since the same customers are using all channels:

"There's a totally different set of skills needed in the Web environment--typing, grammar, technology. It takes time to train to ensure you get all these skills."

The highly competitive job market coupled with the increase in the amount of business conducted over the Web--essentially putting more workers on the front line between the customer and the profit margin--is forcing companies to take a hard look at how they treat their contact center employees. Many are discovering that good customer service begins at home: Companies must provide the right technology and the right training to help workers become more efficient and productive, and at the same time they must up the ante in perks and career incentives to keep contact center staff happy and challenged.

Technology plays a significant role in helping contact center representatives manage a company's customer needs. CIO-100 honoree American Airlines Inc. realizes that and is using new strategies to improve customer experience on the phone and to finish a call more quickly, says Scott Nason, vice president of information technology services and CIO at the Fort Worth, Texas-based airline.

"That saves us money, and it makes agents happier," he says. American is relying heavily on a redesign of its booking process around customer relationship management (CRM) principles to make its reservation call center staffers more efficient.

"We're trying to redesign the [booking] process around the way a customer asks a question rather than the way the system handles that question," explains Nason. "Previously, an agent would go through booking by processing a succession of itineraries until [the system] found one that met the customer's needs. Now it will be easier [for the agents] to get information."

The US$75 million project, which is scheduled to be completed by the third quarter of 2001, includes a new network infrastructure and almost 5,000 client workstations with a Windows GUI. The new tool and redesigned interfaces came about in part as a result of feedback from employee councils in each of American's eight reservation centers. The councils make recommendations in areas involving training and customer-service problems based on input agents receive from customers' calls to the airline's toll-free number.

With the new system, reservation agents use a reference tool on the corporate intranet that simplifies the process of answering callers' questions. Agents access a database of information within the Sabre mainframe that provides hyperlinks and lets them conduct keyword searches. Whereas in the past an agent had to make several computer queries if a customer wanted to know what destination he should choose if he wanted to go skiing on $300, now the information is structured so that the agent can more readily find an appropriate flight.

At Schneider, officials pride themselves on having a customer-centric culture; the corporate headquarters is even designed around the customer service center, set on a balcony that oversees the whole building, says Mark Mullins, vice president of program management. "The idea, in a brick-and-mortar setting, is the customer is at the center of what we do, and that translates into people on the front line having a lot of visibility," he explains.

Because the logistics provider handles approximately 8,000 customers and 20,000 shipments a day, access to up-to-the-minute information on freight status and capacity is crucial for Schneider's contact center staff. Some 550 customer service representatives rely on a satellite tracking system, so if a customer calls from Boston and wants 45,000 pounds of paper moved to Chicago, the rep can get information such as whether a truck is nearby and available, says Mullins. One of the company's newer systems, a Web-based untethered trailer-tracking application, provides status and location updates from the third-party transporters, such as railroads, with which Schneider contracts.

Last January, Schneider rolled out its "MySumit" freight management software, which allows customers to place orders, track and trace freight and get an electronic proof-of-delivery document via the Web. As a result, Schneider now receives more than 50 percent of its customer orders electronically, over the Internet, electronic data interchange (EDI) or direct file feeds. That leaves the company's sales and customer service associates more time to manage exceptions, improve processes and focus on getting to know its customers better, says Mullins.

Schneider employee Huss likes having the opportunity to develop customer relationships, and the part of her job she most relishes is her technology-aided ability to address customers' needs and solve their problems.

"I do face from time to time the irate customer," she says, "so being able to do everything I can and end up satisfying that customer is very rewarding." The ease of access to any customer's history or to rate information--and the knowledge that if she can't find an answer in the system she can go to her supervisor--have made her job a lot more seamless, Huss says.

Of course, technology can't solve all of a contact center representatives' problems. Huss admits that the hardest aspect of the job is not taking it personally when there is a problem with a customer. "The way I deal with it is to realize the person next to me may have more critical problems, things like a shipment not showing up on time," she says. "We rely heavily on our teammates to assist and cover. Most of my customers know me and we have good relationships, and typically things don't get to that point. But for other people on the floor taking on new customers daily, it happens to them." For her part, when Huss reaches a high frustration level, she says her manager encourages her to go for a walk and get away from the phone for a while.

While technology is a key factor in helping build solid customer relationships, in their desire to use technology to satisfy customers, companies sometimes forget that they need to take care of their employees too. "I've seen agents with good systems with good databases and knowledge in front of them, but they're either burned out or not trained or not passionate about using them," says Kathleen Peterson, CEO and founder of Powerhouse Consulting, a Bedford, N.H., management consultancy specializing in call center management and associated technologies. "Logic tells you there's a natural relationship between customers who are happy and well served and employees who are happy and well served."

Happy, well-served employees are those with jobs they are both interested in and properly trained to do. "We look for people who enjoy working with customers, who like a challenge and who are good communicators," says Schneider's Mullins. Since the advent of the Web, Mullins says, it is also essential that today's new hires are computer-literate and willing to learn new skills quickly. "With the rapidly changing business environment, it is very important that our people can adjust to and embrace change," he says.

New customer service representatives receive between four and six weeks of classroom training followed by on-the-job training with an experienced colleague, Mullins says. Once trained, Schneider employees are in continual contact with their managers. Every month, all customer service associates have business partnership meetings with their supervisors during which they discuss problems that may have arisen, high points from the previous month and goals for the month ahead. It's a chance for the associates to voice what's on their minds in a one-to-one setting, Huss says.

Ongoing feedback is also the norm at CIO-100 honoree Inc. The Seattle-based company has started a comprehensive quality assurance program that monitors all representatives on the quality of their contact with customers and provides feedback either by phone or e-mail four times a month, says Bill Price, vice president and general manager of global customer service.

The industry average for rating customer service employees is between five and eight times a month, he adds. There are 20 different scoring points per contact, and the representatives are given URLs on the corporate intranet that they can link to for training in their areas of weakness.

All representatives have access to their quality assessment reports so that they can see how their supervisors scored their responses to specific customer queries. "If you scored well in overall temperament, greeting and overall solution, but the person scoring you felt you guessed at the answer versus knowing it, they'd embed in your survey training links we've designed in-house, so you can go get more training," says Price. "It's the same model for external customers: We're using Web-based technology to provide personalized and detailed feedback to improve quality, and that improves our customers' experience."

That attitude is rooted in common sense, says Geoffrey Bock, a senior analyst at the Patricia Seybold Group, an e-business and technology consultancy in Boston. "If you can't compete on price and you can't compete on product availability, then the next thing to compete on is customer service. Those are really the alternatives electronic merchants have."

Like, Schneider uses an internal system of metrics to gauge the performance of its customer service representatives. In the transportation business, a key measurement is on-time pickup and delivery. This metric is in place for each customer by location, Mullins says. "By putting the right information into the hands of our customer service reps, they can understand if they're making a difference in service to a customer," he says.

In addition to proper training, the promise of career development goes a long way in keeping employees interested in a company. American Airlines, for example, emphasizes upward mobility, says Jackie Cutlip, manager of reservations operations, policy and training. After about six months on the job, reservation agents are offered a chance to be trained in one additional function so that they can advance from domestic sales, which is considered entry level, to working with different types of customers such as on the international frequent-flyer desk, which pays more. They also have "a lot of opportunity to go outside of reservations--it's an open-ended career with options to work at other places within AA," Cutlip says. Representatives at American, as at other companies, receive training through computer-based courses and in groups or individually; Cutlip says American plans to introduce self-paced Web-based training sometime next year.

Back at Schneider, Huss, a college graduate, says her first question when she interviewed with the company two years ago was where she could go from a customer service position. "Basically, I was told you need to learn the core of the business, and from there opportunities are endless," she says. Her goal is to make it into management, whether managing a group of customer service reps on the floor or in the business implementation group, which works on bringing in new business.

Providing employees with ways to improve their quality of life can combat high turnover rates, especially in a high-stress, customer-facing environment like a contact center. The mantra at these days is personalization--not just for its 20 million customers but for its customer service staff in its U.S. and European centers. That realization has been a long time coming. had well-publicized troubles last year with unhappy customer service representatives who, stressed out by the demands of an environment that emphasized fast-paced and no-nonsense responses to its online shoppers, made a move to unionize.

One perk the bookselling behemoth is offering that should reduce some of the job pressure is the opportunity to telecommute. Representatives who fall into the middle tier of a three-tier skills model and have been with the company at least six months can apply to work four days at home and one day in a center.

Not surprisingly, there is a waiting list, says Price.

American Airlines, too, has recognized that flexible schedules are a key retention issue for reservation staff in a 24/7 environment, says Cutlip. The airline has instituted a "bravo bucks" program that compensates employees with internal currency based on performance. The currency can be used to purchase additional 15-minute breaks or a different shift schedule. Shifts, lunches and start times are determined in a bidding process based on seniority, but staff is allowed to swap. "We have received a lot of verbal feedback that the employees really value the flexible options," says Cutlip. When asked on an internal survey earlier this year whether the reservations work group is moving in the right direction in terms of employee satisfaction, the responses indicated a great improvement from a similar survey conducted two years ago, she says.

Today's leadership challenge is to figure out how to serve the employee, especially in an environment that is becoming increasingly complex as much of what was once routine is being automated, says Powerhouse Consulting's Peterson. "We keep increasing the amount of service we can offer to customers electronically, and at some point we need a person," she says. "There's a gap that needs to be filled in upgrading the role of the agent and not forgetting about them in the CRM initiative."

Peterson says the majority of companies still need to recognize the correlation between content contact center staff and satisfied customers. Too many organizations are still "being seduced by the promise of technology, and they're kind of forgetting technology is facilitated by an agent," she maintains. "It's great if the technology can help us automate processes, but every time you do that you leave increasingly complex challenges to human resources."

Companies need to balance the investments they're making in technology and in people, Peterson says. "If you're too heavily weighted on what you spent on initial training last year, you have a retention problem. That makes you look bad. That's the neglected part."

The concept of CRM has raised an awareness that attention needs to be paid to every aspect of the contact center transaction. The customer service worker is the focal point because that's where customers will judge your organization's ability to satisfy them. "That your website works well or your voice response unit works well is a de facto expectation," says Peterson. "When you have to have something resolved, you need to be connected to a person, and if that person fails then your customer relationship fails. You can have the best system and the best information, but if you have a poorly trained, burned out individual, your customer will know it."

Huss, for one, has benefited from Schneider's appreciation of that fact. Today she is a retail specialist who works primarily for two of Schneider's biggest customer accounts: Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Staples. In June she traveled to the Chicago headquarters of Sears, her largest account, to spend some face time with her contacts there. Huss brought her laptop so that she could show the customers what she sees when she's tracking freight. She says it was her idea to make the trip, and her supervisor approved. The company has also promised her yet another promotion by year's end.

Huss says the technology Schneider has provided has given her the ability to answer customers' questions while avoiding the burnout factor. Without upgraded systems to provide the most comprehensive customer information available, she says there might be a risk of her becoming frustrated with the job: "I always said to myself, if I got bored with my job that would be the day I leave." But what keeps her working and happy, she says, "all goes back to career development and knowing I'm not just there to fill a seat in a call center."

Esther Shein is a freelance writer and editor based in Framingham, Mass. She can be reached at


Schneider National, Green Bay, Wis., Seattle American Airlines, Dallas